With recent advances in virtual reality (VR) technology, it easier now than ever before to immerse oneself in an environment that is completely detached from the outside world. While VR is not a new concept, major companies have taken a renewed interest. CNN recently announced that it plans to stream the U.S. Democratic Debate live to Samsung’s Gear VR. Facebook’s company, Oculus, plans to launch its Rift VR headset in 2016. Many in the industry have indicated that 2016 will be a “virtual arms race,” for companies including Samsung, Sony, Google, and Oculus to get products on the market and secure a niche in the VR industry.  Thus, VR headsets will be seen in American households in the near future. With that in mind, it is important to look at its implications and the potential legal issues that accompany it.

It is likely that advanced VR technologies will be used in the future to allow consumers to explore and immerse themselves in the virtual worlds of their choosing. Today, VR computer programs, such as Second Life, allow users to create new identities and experience different lives. Based upon the popularity of such programs, it is evident that consumers find the chance to briefly escape reality enticing. And who wouldn’t? With VR technology, you can visit anywhere, real or mythical, from your living room. However, this virtual dream can turn into a copyright nightmare.

Blogger Eric Greenbaum created a hypothetical scenario that aptly captures the legal issues that will inevitably accompany advances in VR. In his hypothetical, he imagined the ultimate Harry Potter fan creating a virtual Hogwarts and sharing it online through free downloads. Based upon the title of the download and the details of the virtual world, it is clear that the entirety of her virtual world is taken from the pages of a Harry Potter book. Although well intentioned, and likely a dream come true for millions of people, it is likely a copyright violation.

While copyright law does not provide owners with unlimited rights over their works, it does provide a comprehensive scheme of protection. Copyright laws give owners the exclusive right “(1) to reproduce the copyrighted work; (2) to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work; and (3) to distribute copies to the public by transfer of ownership.” The policy rationale behind the law suggests that a virtual representation, although in a different format, is likely considered a “derivative work” of the original. Therefore, the advent of VR technology is likely to result in a steady increase in copyright infringements. The question then becomes, how should lawyers, technology companies, and users prepare?

The easiest answer is to ensure that VR creators ask for the copyright owner’s permission to use the work. A relationship between technology companies and copyright owners can be monetarily beneficial for both. The issue is more likely to effect rogue computer programmers and users who individually create virtual places based on real things. Ultimately, it will be up to the copyright owners to decide whether or not they want to pursue litigation and seek damages against these infringements.

Allison Laubach




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