Nineteen lawyers in Chengdu, capital city of southwest China's Sichuan Province, have recently submitted a jointly-signed proposal to the Law Committee of the National People’s Congress, appealing for the protection of virtual property on Internet.
He Jialin, a lawyer from the Chengdu Hetai Law Firm, is the sponsor and organizer of the action. "I remember there was a discussion about virtual property in the law field in 2002. In 2003 alone, I heard at least 10 consultants complaining that their 'equipment' in online games had been stolen. We think the problem has now entered the sphere of legislation and judicature," he said.
Two test cases have offered an opportunity for Mr. He and 18 other lawyers to take the action.
Mr. Zhao, an online gamer in Chengdu, found his "fortune" and "equipment" in the online computer game The Legend of Mir disappeared abruptly last December. In order to accumulate his virtual property, he spent a large sum of money. He hired a person to test the game around the clock for three months and paid him 1,500 yuan (US$181) each month. He also spent several thousands of yuan purchasing top-notch equipment.
After the incident, Mr. Zhao called the operator of the game in Shanghai, Shanda Networking, to make inquiries, but got no satisfactory response. The spokesperson from Shanda said, "It's your player's error, not our company's."
Then Mr. Zhao went to Mr He for help. After analyzing the situation, He judged the court would probably not accept the lawsuit. Even if the court accepted it, the decision would still be difficult to make, because there is no clear legal basis for this kind of case. Finally, Mr. Zhao had to choose to complain to the Consumers' Association of Sichuan Province.
Another test case happened in February last year. Li Hongchen, an online gamer, discovered all the equipment he owned in the online game Hongyue, or Red Moon, was looted. So he brought a case against the game operator – Beijing Arctic Ice Technology Development Co Ltd. The Chaoyang District People's Court of Beijing accepted the case. The court in the first instance ruled on December 18 that the defendant's infringement on virtual property was tenable and the firm should restore the player's lost items within seven days after the judgment became effective, as there was no unified standard in "actual" life on the value of virtual property.
In He Jialin's view, the judgment isn't encouraging at all. "How to indeed execute the so-called 'return' of our property. It is even difficult to tell whether it can be executed. In addition, the time and energy players expend on improving playing skills is not fully respected," He said.
In their proposal, the lawyers point out that China's online gaming industry has been booming in recent years with an annual income of 1 billion yuan (US$120 million) and tens of millions of consumers. Meanwhile, virtual properties themselves are being attached with value and are said to possess the attribute of normal commodities, and therefore should be protected by law or regulations. However, the protection of virtual property still remains virgin territory, as today, regulations or administrative statutes including the Decision to Maintain Internet Safety and Regulations on the Safety Protection of Computer Information Systems stipulate nothing in this regard.
According to Zhang Qiang, another lawyer with the Chengdu Hetai Law Firm, recognition of virtual property in legislation and judicature has become a trend. The Republic of Korea (ROK) and China's Taiwan and Hong Kong have all issued relevant laws and set precedents in giving criminal sentences to those infringing upon others’ virtual property.
Related law in the ROK stipulates that online virtual characters and items possess property value, independent of service companies. There is no fundamental difference between virtual property and money deposited in the bank.
Recently, relevant departments in Taiwan issued a rule that virtual property and accounts in online games should all be regarded as "electromagnetic records" existing in servers and that they should be regarded as "movable property" in crimes of fraud and theft, and be judged as part of one’s private property. Looting other people's virtual property will be judged as a crime and carry a maximum sentence of up to three years' imprisonment.
Lawyers who jointly submitted the proposal said that legislation on virtual property protection aims at guaranteeing the sound development of China's online industry.
However, He Jialin seems not quite as optimistic about the effect of their proposal. He said, "At present, a lot of issues closely related to the country's economy, and people's lives, urgently need relevant legislation, while the protection of virtual property is after all a matter concerning a small group of people. Putting forward this suggestion is our duty as civilians and, at the same time, as law workers."
(China.org.cn by Zhang Tingting and Daragh Moller, January 26, 2004)