Wednesday 2 February 2011

Can You Steal Digital Property? (UPDATED)

[We first wrote about this on the second of February 2011. The story has now been updated.]

This isn't specifically Frontierville based but does open up some interesting thoughts about the game we love as well.

For a while now digital theft has been big news and big business in Asian countries especially. There have been cases of willful destruction of Avatars and RPG characters and even, back in 2005 before laws were brought in, one revenge killing when a gamer killed his friend who sold a sword he'd lent him. (Full Story Here - BBC News)

It's now become news in the UK (and for us FTV players, closer to home) as Ashley Mitchell, a man from Exeter, Devon, has been found guilty of hacking into Zynga's Poker game and stealing £7.4 million ($12 million) worth of chips, some of which he sold off for over £50'000 ($85000).

He's now been jailed for two years after admitting five charges of hacking and theft along with an extra 30 weeks as he was already on a suspended sentence for hacking. As he enters the prison system, it's opened up that can of worms that is, can you steal something that really doesn't exist?

The courts obviously thought so, as the BBC Website states:

"Sentencing, Judge Philip Wassall said that Mitchell had deliberately "exploited" security weaknesses he had found in Zynga's website.

"People rely on computer systems," he said.

"Anyone who has managed to get into these systems for their own ends should expect a stiff sentence."

His defence was a line I myself have seen in person when talking to cheats on the various games I've played, although obviously none of them have taken it to this extreme.

They stated that as the chips were virtual and that Zynga could make more, it wasn't a serious crime. When the Judge likened it to stealing banknotes they argued that it didn't really cost Zynga anything to make them so they could just churn out as many as they wanted.

Of course, the prosecution could point out the obvious faults in his reasoning, simply by selling many of the chips on he'd proven their worth. His profits were a substantial amount of money that would otherwise have ended up in the Zynga coffers, any arguments that they might be full enough don't really work. If I nick Donald Trump's watch it's still theft.

So where does this leave Frontierville players? It's safe to say that the game doesn't lend itself to such extremes when it comes to the gameplay, the nature of poker chips is as a currency, therefore it's a logical line to be drawn between their existence and the chances of someone working out a way to steal them.

However, we do have something that's worth money in Frontierville, we have the horseshoes and, as an extension of that, the items that they buy. It's not exactly hidden knowledge that people use hacks to gain items in the game, and the general view is it doesn't harm anyone so no harm, no foul.

But if this case sets a precedent it may become interesting viewing for anyone who has, so far, used the hacking tools available to benefit their game. By prosecuting this man Zynga are laying down a simple line, if you take something we could have got money for, it's theft. (Which, to be honest, is fair enough...)

Right now a Mystery Animal crate is 35 Horseshoes, so to buy enough horseshoes to get one you're looking at $5.75 (£3.55). So, theoretically if this court case is anything to go by the general view is that every time a hacker uses one of the tools to gain a Mystery Animal it's costing Zynga $5.75 of trade...

But, let's be honest, it's not really that simple or as cut and dried as something like poker chips. There's nothing to say that the person who acquired the Mystery Animal would actually have bought the Horseshoes to get it legally. Arguably it's highly UNlikely, most hackers are doing it to get stuff they don't WANT to work for or pay for, so I do find it hard to believe that some guy will sit there thinking... "Hmm, I can't hack that pink swan, suppose I'd better pay for it."

The guy with his poker chips was making an obvious profit with these items and was hoping, I imagine, to use them in the game itself where he would have had to have bought chips to play, obviously a different situation to decorative items.

And so, I repeat, where does that leave us Frontierville players? Well, on the plus side by verifying items sold for cash such as Chips and Horseshoes are stealable quantities with a real world value it gives us a little more power to our elbow if something goes wrong in the game and we lose some or all of them. Although to be fair Zynga ar usually excellent at reimbursing glitch-lost items.

As for the cheater side, I can't really see anyone going to court over a hacked Mystery Animal in the same way as this guy with his $12 million haul of chips did. But it does leave a dark cloud over the groups etc online who perpetrate this on a massive scale, the schemers who will offer to get people whatever they want with their hacking tools.

People have taken to seeing cheating as a minor thing, a nothing offence like sneaking some extra Monopoly notes when the banker isn't looking. Now, this case draws a line between cheating and criminal behaviour... and as more of the world becomes digital and more of the things we spend our REAL money on become ethereal and without physical form it'll only become worse.

Only the other day I wrote about Facebook Credits and the general opinion that FB itself is hoping they become an online "currency". What happens if a tool is developed to hack those? When all of a sudden digital money isn't being used to buy lilac frogs and fishing holes but mp3s, movies, even physical goods like electronics or food.

I think it's fair to say this could soon be a bigger growth industry for lawyers since the first one stood up and thought... "People fall over, someone HAS to be to blame".