Virtual Worlds

Your home is burglarized, and the thief makes off with your 42-inch TV, a Tiffany lamp, and several works of art, including a painting you bought just days ago. Is this a crime?


Sounds like it, but what if the “crime” occurred in a virtual world looking like something out of a Tolkien novel? Is the thief’s real-world counterpart responsible for the malicious act? Can you sue him, or maybe the maker of this virtual world? Who, if anyone, is responsible?

Video game screengrabConflicts like these arise from the popular online realms known as virtual worlds, but they have legal repercussions extending far beyond the screens of computers and cell phones. People lose money. They feel wronged or violated. They create their own characters and then see companies make money off of them. And increasingly, with tens of millions of people now spending big chunks of their time in virtual worlds like Minecraft and World of Warcraft, they’re likely to seek redress before the law.

And forging the way in helping courts, legislators, and policymakers grapple with these issues is Greg Lastowka, a Rutgers–Camden law professor known for his innovative scholarship delving into topics such as virtual crimes, user-generated content, and cyberproperty. His book Virtual Justice, published by Yale University Press, is viewed as a groundbreaking work in providing guidance to everyone from courts to game developers about an increasingly contentious realm of the entertainment world. “He makes a compelling and impassioned case for why what happens in online worlds matters to us all—and how what is unfolding there now is determining how free we will be,” Jonathan Zittrain, director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, said of the book.

It’s as if we’re moving from a world of public parks and public spaces to a world built in a fantasy shopping mall.

Greg Lastowka

“It’s as if we’re moving from a world of public parks and public spaces to a world built in a fantasy shopping mall—a privatized space that is artificially constructed,” says Lastowka, the recipient of a Rutgers Board of Trustees Research Fellowship for Scholarly Excellence. “As our investments in these online spaces increase, we’re going to see more calls for courts and legislators to grapple with the issues that virtual worlds raise.”

The field is rife with intriguing questions. Do people occupied with virtual worlds have genuine property rights to the mansions, sports cars, and other objects in these digital environments? Can you be criminally liable for your actions in a virtual world? The work of Lastowka and others is likely to help the legal system sort through the complex issues stemming from our ever-growing fascination with digital entertainment.

Certainly his students can relate to the quandaries of life in the age of Facebook, MP3s, and Twitter. "It’s something they’ve lived through," says Lastowka. "I really enjoy talking about the technologies that are changing everyone’s lives."

And there’s genuine relevance for their legal education. “New technologies present new sorts of conflicts and problems. They force you to go back to the fundamental purposes that the law serves and see if they’re served when the law is applied to the new technology,” he says. “It’s a great teaching opportunity because it takes you back to core concepts all the time.”