A brave new (confusing) world

Snapshot of VR headsets currently on the market

In 2013 it was Google Glass. In 2015 it was Apple’s Watch. 2016 is the year of the virtual reality. VR is no longer a concept imagined in the not-so-distant future — it’s here. As wearable technology becomes a more user-friendly and less obtrusive experience, VR seems to be the next logical progression. From Google Cardboard to Oculus Rift virtual reality is exploding and quickly looks to dominate consumer curiosity and spending as the next big thing. With the exciting possibility of new immersive experiences also comes very real legal and ethical issues likely to outnumber any previous medium.

Thorough, but far from exhaustive, Venable LLP, a law firm, published an article discussing many of the potential legal challenges VR companies will likely face. To no surprise, many of the challenges dealt with commercialization. It’s a fitting and accurate outset as so many companies (both Fortune 100 and startups) rush to create ways to monetize VR, despite its infancy. Here’s a rundown of some of the key legal issues:

  • Whether a celebrity whose likeness is created in VR can take legal action against the company is questionable. The article details legal enforcement will likely hinge on if the VR company attempts to establish some economic value in the celebrity’s identity. Using a celebrity’s likeness in VR also opens the door for possible defamation lawsuits (although notoriously difficult to litigate).
  • Copyright infringement will likely be another big issue. The article suggests there is no burden of proof of commercial tie-in for copyright infringement to be violated with the reproduction or distribution of pictures, video, music and the like in a VR experience.
  • Ownership of content created in the VR experience may be up for dispute between the company and the user.
  • Users creating avatars that become famous or valuable in the VR experience would likely be unable to take advantage of real-world publicity rights (right of an individual to control the commercial use of his or her name, image, likeness, or other unequivocal aspects of one’s identity).

Equally as important as the legal issues surrounding VR are the potential ethical issues. This medium is arguably unlike any other ever before experienced — where imagination (not technology) is the only bound. Among the key ethical issues in VR are privacy, piracy, exploitation, security, violence, and addiction. As VR develops and changes so too will these ethical dilemmas. Which presents several questions: How will VR be monitored and governed? What type of freedoms and speech should be protected in VR? What should be considered off-limits in VR? Should VR be accessible to everyone? Only time will present the answers, but right now we need to continue to raise these questions.


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