Oxford v Moss – 1979

March 05, 2024
Micheal James

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Case Summary:

The 1979 case of Oxford v Moss delves into the murky waters of theft and intangible property. Here, a university student, Mr. Moss, acquired a proof copy of an upcoming exam, copied the questions, but returned the paper before the exam. While seemingly a breach of trust, the question arose: Did he actually steal anything?


Mr. Moss, a mischievous Oxford student, managed to get his hands on a confidential exam paper. After gleefully copying the questions, he returned the paper, ready to ace the test. However, the university, unsurprisingly displeased, charged him with “stealing” the information and breaching exam confidentiality.


The crux of the matter lay in defining “property” within the context of theft. Could confidential information, like exam questions, be classified as property like a car or a wallet? Could it be “stolen” in the same way? This case challenged the boundaries of the Theft Act 1968, raising intriguing questions:

  • Does “property” extend beyond tangible objects to encompass intangible assets like information?
  • Does simply accessing and copying confidential information constitute theft, even if the physical object is returned?
  • Does this require specific legal frameworks beyond traditional property law to protect confidential information?


The High Court sided with Mr. Moss, emphasizing that information, in this instance, couldn’t be considered “property” under the Theft Act. While acknowledging the importance of protecting confidential information, the court felt the Act primarily focused on tangible goods. Mr. Moss, they argued, hadn’t permanently deprived the university of the paper or its intended use of the information after its release.


This case serves as a legal landmark, highlighting the limitations of the “property” definition in theft cases and the complexities of applying traditional law to intangible assets. It:

  • Narrowed the interpretation of “property” within the Theft Act, excluding confidential information at the time.
  • Sparked crucial discussions about the need for specific legal frameworks to protect intellectual property and confidential information beyond physical theft.
  • Raised questions about the evolving nature of property and the adequacy of existing laws in the digital age, where information reigns supreme.


The case presented two contrasting perspectives:

  • Prosecution: They argued that stealing confidential information violated the university’s property rights, a breach of trust associated with accessing the exam paper.
  • Defense: The defense countered that information wasn’t “property” under the Act, and simply copying questions didn’t deprive the university of the physical paper or its intended use.

Further Considerations:

The legal landscape has evolved since 1979:

  • Reforms like the Computer Misuse Act 1990 and the Intellectual Property Act 1998 address digital information protection.
  • Ongoing challenges persist in applying legal frameworks to emerging technologies and intangible assets.
  • International perspectives shed light on diverse approaches to legal protection of information and data.


Oxford v Moss, while limiting the scope of theft under the specific Act, ignited a necessary dialogue about protecting non-physical assets and intellectual property in the digital age. As technology continues to evolve, legal frameworks must adapt to ensure adequate protection for the information that increasingly defines our world.

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