Internet news sites are abuzz with the report that a Japanese woman has been jailed after reportedly "killing" her virtual husband's avatar after a virtual divorce. A 43-year-old Japanese piano teacher was virtually married to a 33-year-old office worker in the online game Maplestory - a cutesy Korean manga-style world.
Reportedly, the husband divorced his virtual wife without warning, and hell hath no fury like an avatar scorned. The piano teacher knew the login details of her online lover, so she entered the game using his password and deleted the character. An avatar had ceased to exist, for all practical purposes, it had been killed. The owner did not take the "killing" lightly, phoned the police, and the Sapporo woman was arrested and taken into custody charged with "illegally accessing a computer and manipulating data". None of the many reports say if she has been released, but the charges carry a maximum sentence of one year and maximum ¥500,000 JPY fine (contrary to the five years claimed by many news sites).
It is perhaps too easy to laugh at the mirth-inducing reports of middle-aged piano teachers and mild-mannered office workers taking their manga characters way too seriously. Nevertheless, it seems evident that there are some interesting legal issues at stake. Firstly, I find it intriguing that anti-hacking laws are being used to protect the integrity of an avatar. The statute in question is the 1999 Unauthorized Computer Access Law, which as the name suggests, penalises unauthorised access to a computer. Art. 3 reads:
Article 3. No person shall conduct an act of unauthorized computer access.
The act of unauthorized computer access mentioned in the preceding paragraph means an act that falls under one of the following items:
(1) An act of making available a specific use which is restricted by an access control function by making in operation a specific computer having that access control function through inputting into that specific computer, via telecommunication line, another person’s identification code for that access control function (to exclude such acts conducted by the access administrator who has added the access control function concerned, or conducted with the approval of the access administrator concerned or of the authorized user for that identification code);
There is no reason why this criminal type would not apply to the present case (that's too many negatives). Moreover, avatars are the embodiment of hours of hard work on the part of the player, and it would be interesting to see if besides the criminal conduct incurred, the perpetrator could also be the recipient of civil action. Nowadays it is possible to allocate real-money value to virtual goods, so a high-level character could be worth a lot of money. If a person deletes the character, shouldn't there be some sort of civil damage recourse as well?
Finally, I think that if this case had taken place in the UK, one could have used the Computer Misuse Act. s1 and s3 of the act penalise unauthorised access and unauthorised modification of computer material respectively.
I'm now off to make sure that my many avatars are still alive.