The Laws of the Metaverse (or lack thereof):

The metaverse is expanding the opportunities available to new ideas and virtual products. Yet, the expansion is also raising questions about legal regulations. There have already been many legal cases revolving around metaverse technology, its users, and its virtual products, many of which do not provide helpful answers. Current laws are not modernized to include the up-and-coming virtual environment. There are many laws that These laws leave no defined regulations for issues like trademark infringement or patents being issued. These issues will need to be resolved soon, or laws updated to make sure the metaverse is created ethically and productively.

A patent is a way to regulate who is the first inventor of a product. For U.S. patent law, an awarded patent gives the invention a monopoly of 20 years. While there are many patents being applied for specific metaverse software, they may be rejected due to being an “abstract idea.” The “abstract idea” law prohibits a patent on a broader method, but there is no standard definition for this law. This law has been used to reject patent applications on many different computer software patents and could be translated to metaverse patents quite easily. However, many metaverse patents, specifically those relating to virtual reality and augmented reality, have already been rewarded. Currently, Facebook (or Meta) holds around 6,730 patents and has around 5,607 pending applications. While they are one of the key companies working on developing metaverse technology, only 5% of their patents relate to VR or AR.

Copyright is another law that will need to be regulated in the metaverse. Copyright laws protect the original creator of a product from other parties copying that work without proper compensation or credit. In most copyright law claims, a judge or jury determines whether the third party actually infringed on the copyright, or whether the work was “fairly used.” These same cases will hopefully be reflected in the metaverse, especially if a user submits copyrighted material illegally, but prosecuting these instances will be difficult in a virtual environment.

Thankfully, the U.S. established a more official set of legal regulations to help with copyright infringement. Established in 1998, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) helps protect digital copyright laws and gives resources to have illegal or infringed materials removed. While the DMCA only applies to the internet and not the metaverse specifically, it can easily be amended in the future to include more advanced technology.

Another big issue in the metaverse is trademarking. Trademarking protects a symbol, logo, or expression from improper use. As many big brands are already investing in developing virtual products (like the fashion industry), trademarking will become a bigger deal as more people use metaverse platforms. Trademark laws do not fall under the DMCA, and therefore any infringement will have to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. This can be costly and time-consuming for many companies, hopefully incentivizing the creation of legal regulations around trademarks in the metaverse.

There are also more serious cases that have arisen within the metaverse. These claims include sexual groping and virtual theft of items. As there is no metaverse law enforcement or virtual jail to punish the offenders, these cases are often brought up to the metaverse platform company, which handles it privately. This can distort the reputation of some of these metaverse platform companies, as they don’t publicly report these cases. As the metaverse expands and grows in virtual users, it will not be surprising to see the frequency of reported cases grow. Only with the proper legal regulations, will these issues be sorted.

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Kenna Hughes-Castleberry

Kenna Hughes-Castleberry

Kenna Castleberry is the Science Communicator at JILA (formerly known as the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics) at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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