Property in Virtual Worlds

473 Pages Posted: 14 Feb 2013 Last revised: 7 Jul 2017

See all articles by Wian Erlank

Wian Erlank

North-West University - Faculty of Law; Tulane University

Date Written: December 1, 2012


This work is a dissertation. However, it was written with the intention of disseminating it to the broad public and to be of use to academics, judges, legal practitioners, as well as the broad public. In due course a published book version will follow.

This dissertation analyses and investigates how virtual property functions inside virtual worlds. It also determines if, within that context, virtual property is similar to, or should be treated like real world property. The questions that are addressed include the following. What is the (real world) legal status of property in virtual worlds? Is it worthwhile to recognise and protect virtual property in real world law? Is it possible to recognise and protect virtual property in real world law, given the differences? Would recognition and protection of virtual property in real world law require or be restricted to instances where virtual property is or can be recognised as real rights?

The dissertation finds that there is a definable concept of “virtual property” as it is encountered in virtual worlds and there is a great degree of similarity between the function of property in virtual and real world systems. There are also sufficient justifications (social, economic and normative) to recognise virtual property as property. Even though the function of property is similar in both systems, the similarities are undermined by the absence, complete or almost complete, of real rights in virtual worlds. This creates a problem since, in real world law, real rights enjoy stronger protection than weaker personal rights. The first reason for this absence of real rights stems from the unique (and mostly uncircumventable) nature of game-code that removes the necessity to make all rights in virtual worlds real rights. The second reason relates to the fact that most virtual world rights are completely derived from and regulated by contract. It is concluded that it is possible to recognise and protect virtual property by means of traditional private law property law (both Roman-Germanic and Anglo-American), constitutional property law, and criminal law. While criminal law will fill some gaps left by the absence of real rights, the rest that are left are contractual rights. In certain circumstances, these contractual rights may be strong enough and in other cases they may require support from special legislation that strengthens weak personal rights and makes them into stronger property-like rights. In constitutional cases, these rights derive support from constitutional property law. However, in other circumstances recognition and protection will probably require recognition of real rights.

Keywords: Virtual Property, virtual worlds, virtual law, property law, property, cyberlaw, internet law, Second Life, World of Warcraft, games, gaming, virtual crime

JEL Classification: K11, K12,K14, K33, K34, K42

Suggested Citation

Erlank, Wian, Property in Virtual Worlds (December 1, 2012). Available at SSRN: or

Wian Erlank (Contact Author)

North-West University - Faculty of Law ( email )

Faculty of Law
Potchefstroom Campus
Potchefstroom, North-West 2531
South Africa
+27 18 299 1932 (Phone)


Tulane University ( email )

6823 St Charles Ave
New Orleans, LA 70118
United States

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