The sort of technology that immerses us in virtual reality ("VR") worlds we once viewed flatly on computer screens has, for several years now, been wowing audiences at technology shows with interactive, three-dimensional experiences. Hardware problems and supply chain issues initially delayed widespread uptake, but VR headsets are taking off as the next must-have device for the home. Major industry players such as Microsoft, Sony, Facebook and Samsung are investing heavily; the industry is predicted to be worth a staggering $7 billion by 2018.

VR hardware is synonymous with computer gaming at the moment, but there is enormous potential for applying the technology to social networking, sales, education and training. Imagine joining friends from all over the world in a virtual museum, or walking through the virtual model of a house you’re interested in.

Legal challenges beyond gaming

The revolution in VR hardware has accelerated the urgency with which lawyers are trying to resolve the novel challenges thrown up by virtual worlds. We might break it down a little broadly and crudely by asking Who will be sued, and what will they be sued for? Imagine a virtual bar, the walls hung with art, and background music playing. The owner of the virtual premises books a live entertainer who proceeds to make slanderous comments about a prominent celebrity. In this scenario the platform provider that created the virtual world, the user running the bar, and the entertainer could all be liable for copyright violations, trademark infringement and slander.

Copyright

As copyright affords legal protection to creators of original work, it ensures, among other things, that they can claim royalties. Reproducing creative work is, on the face of it, no different in the virtual world, but enforcement for copyright holders could be much more difficult than it already is. Virtual spaces do not fit within the public/private distinction that helps identify commercial use. And publication could pose jurisdictional issues: if a user in Germany is ‘in’ the bar, which is run by an user in Korea manipulating a virtual world hosted out of the USA, where are those protected images and music being used?

Defamation

Defamation usually comes in the form of making a false statement about a person to a third party that causes reputational harm, and it’s just as likely to rear its head in a shared virtual environment, on Facebook, or during a web broadcast. But who is responsible for it? Platform providers on the Internet use terms of service to protect themselves from secondary liability, but it is not yet clear how terms and conditions could be drafted to work for a virtual environment that is somewhere between a public space and a multi-player computer game.

The stakes are high

Brett Leonard, director of the VR film The Lawnmower Man, argues that VR introduces a new paradigm for human interaction and that the stakes are incredibly high. As the century progresses, VR technology could radically transform how we interact, and rehashing worn-out legal doctrines derived from the law governing the Internet will probably not be sufficient.