Lara Croft: Tomb Raider…and Wanted Felon

(This guest post was written by unapologetically geeky gamer lawyer Angelo Alcid, who writes about real-life video game law issues at his blog The Geek Law Journal.)

Since the release of Tomb Raider in 1996, millions of people have been happily raiding tombs as intrepid archaeologist Lara Croft; however, back in April of last year, Mark asked: how legal is anything Lara Croft does? (Note: Since I am a U.S. attorney, this analysis will be based on prevailing U.S. law. Ms. Croft’s fate in the courts of her home country of England is best left to experts across the pond.)

The UNESCO 1970 Convention

The single most significant law affecting Ms. Croft’s globe-spanning archaeological pursuits is the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The UNESCO 1970 Convention was drafted to combat the illicit trafficking of cultural artifacts by giving member nations the right to recover stolen or illegally exported antiquities from other member countries.

At the time of this writing, 124 nations are signatories to the treaty, including almost every nation that Lara Croft has visited during her various adventures (except for Tibet and Thailand). The United States ratified the UNESCO 1970 Convention and implemented it with the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CIPA), codified in 19 U.S.C. §§ 2601-13.

That being said, the UNESCO 1970 Convention and CIPA only come into play if the items in question were in fact 1) cultural artifacts, and 2) stolen or illegally exported. While UNESCO provides model provisions regarding state ownership of cultural objects, such model provisions are not themselves legally binding, and it is up to each member nation to implement laws concerning the ownership and exportation of cultural artifacts.

The Raiding of Foreign Tombs

Whether Lara Croft could face liability for the actual act of “raiding” would depend upon the local laws governing the tombs in question. The games are notably silent as to Lara having the proper permits to conduct her excavations, but it seems safe to assume that her tomb raiding is being done without the permission of the local governments and would almost certainly subject her to civil and/or criminal liability. (To be fair to the game developers, a cutscene or level wherein Lara visits a Peruvian government building to file for permits might not have made for the most exciting game.)

The question of whether or not Lara’s tomb raiding are illegal in the countries in which the tomb raiding is rather straightforward – the answer is almost certainly yes, as in each case she goes in without government sanction, guns blazing, often resulting in the complete destruction of the tomb in question.

For example, in Egypt, Article 6 of Law 117 states that “[a]ll antiquities are considered to be public property . . . It is impermissible to own, possess or dispose of antiquities except pursuant to the conditions set forth in this law and its implementing regulations.” Furthermore, Article 41 states that anyone who “unlawfully smuggles an antiquity outside the Republic or participates in such an act shall be liable to a prison term with hard labor and a fine of not less than 5,000 and not more than 50,000 pounds.” There are prison terms and fines outlined for removing an antiquity from its place, for transporting it outside of Egypt without express government permission, and for defacing artifacts and monuments, all of which Lara does during her brief time in Egypt looking for the final piece of the Scion in the first Tomb Raider game.

Rather than list off the innumerable fines and jail terms Lara would no doubt face in the various nations from which she retrieves artifacts, instead I will examine the legal consequences Lara may face after her adventures are concluded and she brings these artifacts home to hang up on her wall. (Lara Croft’s official home is in England; however, as previously stated, I will be analyzing her situation in the context of U.S. law. I would welcome a British lawyer’s perspective on how Lara would fare over there.)

National Stolen Property Act

In the U.S., a person may be subject to both civil and criminal liability for the sale and transport of illegally exported cultural artifacts. While Lara doesn’t ever actually sell any of the artifacts she finds, the fact remains that she is transporting all of these artifacts across state/national borders all the time, with many of them winding up in her personal collection at home. (For example, she has the Ark of the Covenant just sitting in the main hall of her mansion.)

The National Stolen Property Act (NSPA) prohibits the transportation “in interstate or foreign commerce [of] any goods, . . . of the value of $5,000 or more,” with knowledge that such goods were “stolen, converted or taken by fraud.” 18 U.S.C. § 2314. Enacted in 1948, the NSPA was originally intended to aid states in their pursuit of thieves, as the states’ ability to prosecute thieves was often limited when the thieves (or the property) would cross state lines.

United States v. McClain

However, in addition to interstate commerce, the NSPA also specifically mentions foreign commerce, and as a result it has been applied to the illegal import of artifacts stolen from foreign nations. In United States v. McClain, the defendant was prosecuted under the NSPA for illegally importing several pre-Columbian artifacts from Mexico.

On appeal, the defense argued that the NSPA could only be applied if the artifacts were  “stolen” as defined by the NSPA, and that the term “stolen” only covers “acts which result in the wrongful deprivation of rights of ‘ownership’ as that term is understood at common law. United States v. McClain, 545 F.2d 988, 994 (5th Cir. 1977). In other words, he couldn’t have stolen them if they weren’t officially owned by anyone.

The court reasoned that an explicit declaration of ownership by the government would be sufficient to consider the illegally exported artifacts “stolen” under the NSPA. (Without such an explicit declaration of ownership, prosecuting people in the U.S. for illegally exporting artifacts from foreign nations would simply amount to the United States enforcing the laws of other nations for them.)

While the respondents argued that Mexico had passed laws protecting their archaeological interests dating back to 1897, the court did not find a law specifically declaring ownership over the type of artifacts in question until 1972, when Mexico passed the Federal Law on Archaeological, Artistic and Historic Monuments and Zones. 312 Diario Oficial 16, 6 de mayo de 1972. Article 27 states that “[a]rchaeological monuments, movables and immovables, are the inalienable and imprescriptible property of the Nation.”

Because court could only establish that Mexico had officially declared its ownership interest over the artifacts in 1972, and it could not be established precisely when the defendant had exported the artifacts, the defendant was eventually acquitted of all but the conspiracy charges.

The McCain decision was cited 25 years later, in Unites States v. Schultz, 333 F.3d 393 (2003), in which the defendant was also prosecuted under the NSPA for the receipt of stolen Egyptian antiquities. In Schultz, the court looked to a law passed in Egypt (“Law 117”) that declared all antiquities found in Egypt after 1983 to be the property of the Egyptian government, and upheld the defendant’s conviction. Schultz was sentenced to 33 months in prison and a fine of $50,000, and nearly all of the artifacts he received were returned to Egypt.


On top of all the possible fines and jail time Lara Croft would likely face in each nation she visits in her tomb-raiding adventures, for each artifact she brings home she may also be prosecuted by the U.S. government for the transport of stolen goods under the National Stolen Property Act as long as the artifact’s nation of origin has enacted a law officially declaring state ownership of such artifacts. Furthermore, all of the various artifacts she retrieves will likely be returned to their nations of origin under the UNESCO 1970 Convention and CIPA.


This analysis was focused specifically on the legal ramifications of the act of retrieving and transporting the artifacts central to the Tomb Raider games. In the course of the first game alone, Lara Croft also breaks into the corporate headquarters of Natla Technologies, kills a number of endangered animals (like wolves and gorillas, not to mention the sasquatch and dinosaurs), and also straight up shoots a guy without (much) provocation.

How legal is anything Lara Croft does? The short answer is, “Not very.”

17 responses to “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider…and Wanted Felon

  1. I would imagine that some of the people that she kills throughout the games could be argued down to a case of self-defense. Often, they’re the ones who shoot first.

    What about the implications of the most recent remake? In that instance she was on an island that was apparently its own kingdom, but the kingdom was long since vanished, even if it might technically be part of Japan based on its location. The island was even located on a map, since it seemed to be well-inside a Bermuda-Triangle like area where ships had disappeared for years.

    Of course, despite that, it seems that the island could still be located by various governments, as both a plane and a helicopter manage to find the island based on the coordinates she broadcasted out. Could Japan lay claim to any of the treasures/tombs on that island, even though the island wasn’t officially part of Japan and the ruling queen was an evil soul trapped in a rotting corpse?

    • Oh certainly, in many (I dare say most) instances in the games, when she’s killing other human beings, the circumstances make for a strong argument for self-defense. I only mention that one instance at the end of my post as being the notable exception in my mind: her life isn’t clearly in imminent danger, and she shoots first when he’s (ostensibly) just trying to get her to leave. He only pulls out his shotgun and starts shooting back after she’s already fired her first shot.

      As far as Japan’s claim over the island in the newest game, that would depend on the island’s exact location and the territorial claims of the nations around that area. This does remind me of the recent conflict between Japan, China, and Taiwan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, with all three nations claiming that the islands are part of their territory.

    • We often use self defense as an argument for why a character had to kill someone, but when you’re viewing something not as a video game to beat but as a story you have to remember that Lara Croft, on occasion at least, could just walk away and contact the police. Or just walk away altogether. There’s no legal responsibility for her to deliberately go into a ruin filled with killers, bloodthirsty animals and monsters.

      • “you have to remember that Lara Croft, on occasion at least, could just walk away and contact the police.”

        This, in theory, is the reason for “stand your ground” laws.
        Ordinary common-law imposes a duty to retreat if possible before using deadly force. “Stand your ground” removes this duty to retreat.

      • And this right does not exist in every nation, or even every state in the United States I believe, nor does she get any kind of special privilege to do it just because she knows there are criminals in some tomb or lost city. You wander into a place that you have absolutely no legal control of and start shooting at people in there, regardless of what their criminal activities might have been, you don’t get to claim to the court that you were just protecting yourself.

      • Chill out.
        I didn’t say that “stand your ground” exists in every country, nor even every state in the U.S. I just said what the common-law requirement is, and the statutory adjustment that is sometimes made.

        On the other hand, yes, you can just wander into a place and, if conditions are right, shoot people and call it self-defense. (The principal requirement, being, of course, that it IS self-defense.)

  2. Pingback: Lara Croft: Tomb Raiding and the Law | The Geek Law Journal

  3. I haven’t played a Tomb Raider since that first one on PC; well, I thin it was the first, it’s the one that was very pixelated but had water refraction and waves and stuff; and even for that I don’t really remember much about it. Does she really steal things, or just ensures someone that is gonna do bad things with the stuff can’t? I had the impression she simply is keeping things safe because other people won’t; but I guess considering how little information I got from the actual games, it’s quite possible that is just an spontaneously developed headcanon…

    • You’re certainly right that in each game, the main “bad guy” wants the artifacts for some nefarious purpose, like building an army of mutants or gaining superpowers or something. By taking the artifacts herself Lara is stopping their evil plans, so she may be able to make an argument that her actions in taking the artifacts were justified. However, the fact remains that in almost every case, the artifacts do officially belong to the government, so at the very least she would have needed to get their permission to enter these ancient cultural sites to retrieve these artifacts, and she almost certainly wouldn’t have been able to take them home afterward.

      Also, in the first game, Lara doesn’t even know what the bad guy wants to do with the Scion until the very end, just that she hired Lara to find it for her. So in that sense, Lara starts the first game as less of an archaeologist and more of a treasure hunter for hire.

  4. Christopher L. Bennett

    Maybe she shot the guy for not knowing how to pronounce “Scion.” “Skee-on?” Seriously?

    What about Indiana Jones? There was a recent article on io9 about how archaeologists hate Indy because he’s about as far from a real archaeologist as you can get; for instance, a real archaeologist would be more fascinated by the technology and culture behind all those deathtraps in the Hovitos’ tomb than by the boring gold idol. It contends that he’s basically just a looter himself.

    But I wonder how consistent this is with the practice of archaeology in the 1930s setting of the films. I know there was a lot less concern for national heritage and ownership back then, so I wonder how legal Indy’s activities were at the time the films are set.

    • I always had the impression that the IJ movies represented Indy’s “side job” when he wasn’t teaching (or, presumably, conducting legitimate field work).

    • It has been a while since I last watched an IJ movie; but isn’t he grabbing the stuff to give to museums, instead of leaving them there to be stolen?

      • Selling them to museums based on what we see in the first movie. It’s possible that the writers realized the unheroic nature of this in the third since we hear him repeatedly shout “it belongs in a museum” but I don’t think that it’s ever established that if he comes across regular artifacts he doesn’t sell them.

      • Actually, Indiana Jones talks about raising money to fund the expedition. He gets paid, but for looking, not for delivery. And in the extended opening sequence to “Lost Crusade”, Indy’s literally a Boy Scout fighting grave robbers. Years later, he recovers the Cross of Coronado to put it in a museum (that’s the segueway from Young Indy to regular Indy.)

  5. I guess “Tomb Raider” sounds better (both for Lara Croft and Indiana Jones) than “grave robber” and “thief of other people’s antiquities”!

  6. There’s also the example of the short lived television show Relic Hunter, which had at least some of the same legal issues.

  7. I watched Relic Hunter recently and Sydney almost always retrieves relics under circumstances where she has a right to get them. She often does get permission from the government or rightful owner (sometimes because the artifact is stolen or missing), and rarely takes the artifacts home.

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