Pokémon Go: A New Frontier for Property Rights
Jul 27, 2016
Pokémon Go has shattered records for the most played game in United States history, but the game is breaking ground in other areas as well. The game which combines the virtual and physical world sends players out into the streets to chase Pokémon and battle at gyms. The game has been successful in getting kids off the couch and outside. The frenzy has become so much that when a rare Pokémon appeared in Central Park, players stampeded across busy streets, crowding into the park for a chance to catch the elusive Vaporeon. This revolutionary game brings to light the question, who owns the virtual property of a physical place?
One homeowner, Boon Sheridan, converted an old church into his new home, but never foresaw having hordes of Pokémon trainers flocking to his house. When Pokémon Go made Sheridan’s home a gym, 75 strangers have been showing up each day to do battle. Niantic, the game creator has said that if an inquiry is made, they will take the “relevant steps at that point based on the nature of the inquiry.” Despite filing a complaint, Sheridan’s home remains a gym.
Just as Sheridan has struggled keeping players off of his property, national memorials have also fallen victim. As a landmark, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was made a stop in the game. The museum had to comment, “Playing the game is not appropriate in the museum, which is a memorial to the victims of Nazism. We are trying to find out if we can get the museum excluded from the game.”
By laying a digital world on top of a physical one, the game developers put property owners in a sticky situation. At no point did the developers seek permission from property owners to use their land in the game. While the company encourages patience, property owners are left with few options and are essentially at the mercy of the developers.
Whether Pokémon Go is a short fad or a lasting phenomenon, it has been the first to raise the question of ownership in virtual reality. While the game does not force players to trespass, it certainly gives players the incentive to wander onto private lands. With the case of the Holocaust museum, an argument can certainly be made that the virtual game affects how individuals who are not playing the game can use the property. In their chase for Pokémon, players have diminished the ability of museum goers to create a sense of respect on the museum property.
Since Pokémon Go has broken ground in infusing the physical world with a virtual reality, lawyers and policy makers must consider whether physical property ownership extends intellectual property rights as well. Whether a property owner has the undisputed rights to the likeness and location of his home is yet to be determined. While players try to “catch ‘em all,” policymakers will be left trying to catch up to this new intersection of virtual and physical realities.