Virtual reality (VR) is an experience taking place within simulated and immersive environments that can be similar to or completely different from the real world. It can be used for educational and entertainment purposes. Also, augmented reality or mixed reality are other types of this technology.
The current systems use some kind of device (e.g., headsets or multi-projected environments) to create images, sounds, or other sensations in order to take the user into the virtual environment. The users can submerge themselves into the virtual environment and interact with the virtual features as if they are real. The effect is generated by special headsets that yield a head-mounted display with a tiny screen before the eyes, but can also be created through specially designed rooms with big screens. This technology includes visual and auditory feedback, and can also permit other types of senses or feedback through haptic technology.
What are the potential legal issues?
Well, with every new idea comes along a risk. For example, the bad actors may figure out a way to defraud others by using this technology. The users may threaten each other with violence or bodily harm. The users may annoy, harass, or intimidate each other in the virtual world. However, the same legal doctrines and principles will apply. In general, every jurisdiction will have a harassment statute which can be applicable to the situation. For example, California Code of Civil Procedure Section 527.6 describes a “credible threat of violence” as follows:
“Credible threat of violence” is a knowing and willful statement or course of conduct that would place a reasonable person in fear for his or her safety or the safety of his or her immediate family, and that serves no legitimate purpose.
This statute also describes “harassment” as follows:
“Harassment” is unlawful violence, a credible threat of violence, or a knowing and willful course of conduct directed at a specific person that seriously alarms, annoys, or harasses the person, and that serves no legitimate purpose. The course of conduct must be that which would cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress, and must actually cause substantial emotional distress to the petitioner.
Therefore, if the virtual reality users engage in the same or similar conduct, then the courts may apply the applicable rules or regulations.
Intellectual property rights may be violated by using these technologies without obtaining the proper license from the copyright owner. The users may use the other person’s avatar without permission and use them. It can be used for unlawful purposes which would constitute a tort.
Privacy rights may be violated by collecting and sharing of personal information – e.g., name, address, telephone, email address, IP address, or other identifying information. In most, if not all states, there are applicable statutes that prevent the unlawful collection or sharing of personal information. For example, California has enacted AB 375 to protect the privacy of its citizens. This statute is a comprehensive law that closely follows the GDPR data privacy guidelines which replaced the Data Protection Directive 95/46/EC and is designed to synchronize data privacy laws, protect citizens, and reshape organizational approach to data privacy.
Which legal cases may apply?
In recent years, the courts have been grappling with technology which has been challenging because technology is usually a few steps ahead. However, the legal principles that may apply to the situation remain the same. For example, one court has held that original expressions are protected by copyright laws. See Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service, 499 U.S. 340, 113 L.Ed.2d 358 (1991).
There may be new issues in the future that the courts have not considered. For example, companies that have a trademark registration in the real world may have problems if a user takes their name and uses it in the virtual world without permission. Now, does the real-world trademark registration apply to the virtual world? What if the trademark or copyright owner has no way to register the trademark or copyright in the virtual world? So, should the government agencies (e.g., Patent and Trademark Office, Copyright Office) offer the option?
At our law firm, we help clients navigate through the legal obstacles. Please do not hesitate to contact our virtual and augment reality attorneys for any questions.