With more and more people socializing and interacting on the Internet, or in the virtual world, calls have been made for 'virtual property' to be legally defined and regulated by law to protect it from theft and plagiarism.
A man in Guangzhou, the capital of south China's Guangdong Province, was found guilty of online theft last week, becoming the first person in the province to be punished by the courts for stealing virtual property.
The man, Yan Yifan, 20, started playing an online game Dahua Xiyou in 2002.
In 2004, he was invited to work as a temporary employee by the game's publisher, NetEase.com, Inc, around the time the company was promoting the second anniversary of Dahua Xiyou II.
During his stint in the company, Yan gained access to more than 30 players' personal information and counterfeited their identity cards (ID cards).
Posing as the players and claiming that passwords had been stolen, Yan faxed the counterfeit ID cards to NetEase and changed all of their passwords.
Taking the new passwords, Yan sold the players' game IDs and pieces of their game equipment to other players, making a profit of more than 4,000 yuan (US$500).
Yan was fined 5,000 yuan (US$617) by the court of Guangzhou's Tianhe District in the first trial last December.
Yan appealed to the higher-level Guangzhou Intermediate People's Court, on the grounds that virtual property should not be protected by law.
However, the court ruled that online game players had spent time, energy and money to obtain equipment necessary to play the game, thereby imparting value and use to the virtual goods.
Moreover, Yan made a profit from the exercise.
The court therefore affirmed the original judgment.
Wang Xiaodong, a lawyer on intellectual property rights (IPR) from C&I Partners (Guangdong), told China Daily yesterday: "Lawbreakers are exploiting the loophole. Chinese Criminal Law doesn't define what virtual property is or whether it is protected by law."
He added that, if cases such as this continue to be heard by the courts, the Supreme People's Court would probably devise a specific law soon to protect virtual property.
(China Daily April 4, 2006)