Venturing to another world via virtual reality has been a longtime fantasy. In 1935, American science fiction writer Stanley G. Weinbaum mused about the technology in his short story Pygmalion’s Spectacles writing, “But listen – a movie that gives one sight and sound. Suppose now I add taste, smell, even touch, if your interest is taken by the story. Suppose I make it so that you are in the story, you speak to the shadows, and the shadows reply, and instead of being on a screen, the story is all about you, and you are in it. Would that be to make real a dream?”
Today, virtual reality is no longer just a dream. Several VR headsets are on the market, ranging from the $15 Google Cardboard, which works in conjunction with an app on your phone, to the HTC Vive ($799), which offers the ability to reach out and grab something or walk around in virtual space (as long as you have the actual room to do so).
Seventy-five percent of the Forbes World’s Most Valuable Brands have gotten involved with some form of augmented or virtual reality, either developing or investing in the technology or using it for customers or employees. The involvement makes total sense considering the predicted growth of virtual reality. Numbers of augmented and virtual reality devices sold is estimated to rise from 2.5 million in 2016 to 24 million in 2018. The virtual world Second Life is also expected to have a population boom from 1 million active VR users in 2013 to as many as 171 million by 2018.
Although the most obvious application of virtual reality is in gaming and other forms of entertainment, the technology can be applied throughout various industries. Imagine exploring outer space, visiting Paris, being able to tour a prospective home from miles away, or commuting to work through a robot with cameras mounted on its body. Medical students could try an open-heart surgery without any risks and have more empathy for elderly patients after experiencing what it actually feels like to be old with audio and visual impairments.
Virtual reality could also revolutionize court cases, recreating crime scenes, vehicle accidents, and witness simulations to paint the most accurate picture of the situation and allow jurors to view the scene from multiple vantage points. For example, a witness could testify that they saw a defendant commit a crime, but a VR recreation of the crime scene could be used to show that from where the witness was standing, they only saw the back of the defendant’s head and couldn’t possibly positively identify the suspect beyond a reasonable doubt.
Law enforcement is already utilizing virtual reality in their training. Virtual training simulators allow officers to practice receiving a service call, driving to the location, speaking to subjects in the field, making an arrest, possible use of less-than-lethal force and, if required, a vehicle pursuit. Trainees are able to experience the stress of real-world situations and hone their reaction times, critical thinking, and safety skills within a controlled environment before they even go into the field.
Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg believes we are at the very start of the technology’s potential. “One day, we believe this kind of immersive, augmented reality will become a part of daily life for billions of people,” he wrote after announcing Facebook’s $2 billion purchase of the company that created VR headset Oculus Rift.
As we have seen with the expansion of the Internet, crimes follow wherever people go. Online scams, malware infections, stolen data, cyberbullying, and identity theft are all very real threats that we didn’t have to worry about a few decades ago. Lawmakers still have a long ways to go in modernizing our laws to handle crimes that occur online, and courts are forced to figure it out case by case.
Due to the addictive nature of gaming and some users’ desires to escape from society, tragedies have occurred as a consequence of being sucked into a virtual fantasy world. In an infamous case, a South Korean couple was charged with involuntary manslaughter when their three month old daughter starved to death while they went on 6- to 12-hour online binges, ironically caring for a virtual child in a 3D fantasy massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG).
When crime happens as a result of being too caught up by a virtual reality game, that’s one thing. But what about when crime occurs within the virtual world? With major advances predicted for VR, it’s only a matter of time before the legality of what happens in the virtual world comes into question and has to be decided by laws in the real world. Here are a few of the legal issues to consider with VR gaming.
Rights to Virtual Property
According to virtual world anthropologist Nick Yee, the average player spends 22 hours a week online. For many, the virtual world is their life, so it’s a serious matter when their virtual property gets stolen.
Gamers themselves have posted debates in forums about the challenges of charging people that steal virtual property. Some argue that the items don’t actually belong to the player in the first place but belong to the company that owns the game, and the company is likely to have protected itself from liability in its End User License Agreement. Others point out that it would be difficult to press charges on another player due to privacy laws and not being able to prove who actually stole the property. The suspect could claim a friend was visiting at the time and executed the crime when he was in another room or a roommate did it when he wasn’t home.
China actually had its first virtual property rights dispute case in 2003, and the ruling was surprising to some. Li Hongchen, 24, filed suit against online gaming company Beijing Arctic Ice Technology Development Company. Li contacted Arctic Ice after he discovered his virtual assets had been stolen, but the company did nothing to remedy the situation because they said the stolen goods were just “piles of data” that possessed no real world value. When the police wouldn’t help either, the Chinese gamer took his case to court asking for 10,000 yuan ($1,210) in compensation. He argued that he had invested that amount of money and significant stretches of time playing over a span of two years, accumulating weapons and victories in the popular online computer game Hongyue, or Red Moon. Beijing’s Chaoyang District People’s Court ruled that the video game company was liable due to loopholes in the server that allowed hackers to commit the virtual theft and ordered them to restore the stolen items.
Intellectual Property Rights in the Virtual Realm
Intellectual property theft involves robbing people or companies of their ideas, inventions, and creative expressions and includes trademark violations and theft of trade secrets and copyrighted material. It’s an all too common problem with the rise of digital technologies and Internet file sharing networks. General speaking, copyrighted or trademarked content that is uploaded into a virtual world is protected by the same standards that apply in the real world, but often it is up to the world owner or service provider to fight any infringing actions of its users. With game creators eager to increase the realism of their virtual world and gamers given the freedom to design their own characters, there are several instances where intellectual property rights in VR can become a legal concern.
For instance, what if a player created an avatar who wore a t-shirt with a popular logo on it and went around harassing and assaulting other users of the virtual world? Even though the creator is wearing the logo of a trademarked company, not to mention possibly damaging the brand by acting in a distasteful manner, there likely wouldn’t be much the company could do because the player isn’t using the mark “in commerce,” selling or profiting from the shirt. However, would the circumstances change if the same user starts selling that shirt to other players in exchange for virtual coins?
Marvel Entertainment found itself grappling with intellectual property issues, and sued publisher NCsoft along with developer Cryptic Studios for copyright infringement in 2004. Marvel argued that the ability to customize characters in the games “City of Heroes” and “City of Villains” gave users the power to create avatars that looked very similar to trademarked Marvel characters such as Wolverine or the Hulk. The companies settled with undisclosed terms in 2006, so we don’t know exactly what went down, but NCsoft released a statement saying that the settlement would continue to allow players “to express their creativity in making and playing original and exciting characters.”
In 2007, German authorities began an investigation into Second Life when pictures surfaced showing adult avatars engaging in sex with other players who posed as children as well as offered virtual child pornography for sale within the alternate reality platform. While in the United States “virtual” child pornography is not a crime, in Germany it is punishable by three months to five years in prison.
Since VR allows users to connect with others despite geographical boundaries, the question of jurisdiction comes into play if a crime is committed in the virtual world. The examination of what is criminal in virtual reality is further complicated by disagreements among countries and states over what is illegal even in real life.
Applying real laws to alternate realities goes against the whole purpose of allowing users to create their own rules. Instead, VR advocates argue that participants should work towards developing their own virtual legal code and justice system. Until that happens, we have to think about where to draw virtual lines and how to adapt our laws to suit the digital world.