As the concept of augmented reality begins to take ahold of the world in one shape or another, the inevitable has happened: the battle for ownership of virtual land has begun. A lawsuit, filed in California, claims that Niantic has no legal right to place virtual items on virtual land in a virtual world that they created over top of reality. The suit comes on behalf of New Jersey resident Jeffrey Marder, who is annoyed that people playing Niantic's popular Pokémon GO game have been hanging around his house and, in a few instances, have asked his permission to access his yard to chase a Pokémon.
Now, we are all annoyed when someone knocks on our door unsolicited. However, I have personally never discussed with a lawyer the possibility of filing a class action suit against Jehovah's Witnesses. That's because, as annoying as it may be, they aren't doing anything inherently wrong, simply annoying. Now, if they showed up in my back yard and started walking around preaching to the birds, then we might have a problem, because I have a reasonable expectation of privacy there. However, I do not have any expectation of privacy on a public street, for example.
In this particular case, what is driving people to his area are virtual creatures who happen to have wandered into the area based on a computer algorithm in a virtual plane of existence, in which his land does not exist. However, since his land and the virtual land exist at the same position in reality, there is definitely an interesting intersection to consider.
It seems that the ownership of the virtual land is entirely in Niantic's hands, as the built the computer system that created and maintains it. Because of that, the company can do with it as they please. However, players of the game cannot violate physical property in their hunt for virtual property. That means that people cannot enter this man's yard without his permission to hunt Pokémon on his land.
In stark contrast to that reasoning, the complains claims,
It became apparent that Niantic had designated properties as Pokéstops and Pokémon gyms without seeking permission from property owners and with flagrant disregard for the foreseeable consequences of doing so.
The intentional, unauthorized placement of Pokéstops and Pokémon gyms on or near the property of Plaintiff and other members of the proposed class constitutes a continuing invasion of the class members' use and enjoyment of their land, committed by Niantic on an ongoing basis for Defendants' profit.
This case could set the scene for current and future AR projects, including Niantic's other game, Ingress, as well as other products like Google Maps Street View and Zillow, which also offer information about, and views of, private property without owners' permission.
The takeaway here, for now, is that you should heed Niantic's suggestion and "adhere to the rules of the human world."