By Lin Taylor and Sally Hayden
LONDON, Sept 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Within one week in July the Sydney suburb of Rhodes was transformed from a quiet neighbourhood to what resident Joyce Wong described as a "place of carnage" with hundreds of people wandering around like "zombies".
"The car hooting noise was incessant, on weekends you felt like you were under siege and the rubbish and litter all over the public areas was terrible," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by email from her home in the Australian city.
The reason for the constant disturbance? Pokemon Go, the latest craze in augmented reality. The game took the world by storm this summer as animated creatures began appearing in the most unexpected places - all through the lens of a smartphone. The global popularity of the game and other video games that put digital "characters" into real places - from private homes to shops, parks and even monuments and museums - has fuelled debate on land rights, the legal boundaries of private property, and what constitutes trespass.
Experts say the inter-section between virtual reality and property law is not clear and nobody really knows what the rights of property owners are when digital characters or structures appear on their land. "A lot of people are convinced that because they own their property, they ought to be able to control the virtual space," said Brian Wassom, a lawyer at Michigan's Warner Norcross & Judd LLP with expertise in augmented reality. "I think they're going to come to the answer which I have come to, which is: no, you can't," he said in a phone interview.
He said land rights only apply when there has been something or someone physically present on the property. However, this distinction is becoming blurred as more and more examples of the power the digital world can hold over specific geographical spots emerge.
For example in the United States certain properties have ended up as default locations for millions of Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, a computer's public address, leading to a myriad of problems including unwanted visitors and police searches. Meanwhile, the placing of Pokestops - places where players collect virtual Pokeballs to help them move forward in the game - has fuelled consternation when they appeared in some surprising spots, including Washington's Holocaust museum, New York's Sept. 11 memorial and a Cambodian genocide museum.
Following its initial launch in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand on July 6, Pokemon Go was rolled out further afield and downloaded more than 500 million times. While not the first augmented reality game, Pokemon Go, developed by U.S. software firm Niantic Inc., is the most popular to date, raising more questions about how virtual games impact property rights. What happens when games based around virtual violence like Grand Theft Auto are launched in similar formats? If the technology becomes more widely available, could individuals begin leaving messages on your house?
These questions are yet to be answered, and Boon Sheridan, from Massachusetts, has another. This summer, Sheridan's home in a converted church in the northern U.S. state also became a Pokemon Go gym. He wrote on Twitter in July: "Does having a gym layered on my house enhance or detract from my home's value?"
"I just realized all the people walking or driving up, lingering, then moving on could easily make this place look like a dealer's house," he commented.
Lawyer Wassom said the test for whether a potential litigant has a case against a game creator at the moment seems clear: there needs to be proof of physical harm done to them or their property. They then need to be able to link that action directly to the company that created the game. In this sense, Niantic has been careful. At the beginning of each game Pokemon Go instructs players not to trespass on private property, which means while a player who trespasses could potentially be prosecuted, the company itself can't, said Wassom.
Written requests to Niantic for comment went unanswered.
Niantic was spun off from Google Inc. in 2015 in partnership with Nintendo and its partly owned Pokemon Company. Wassom said laws usually lag behind technological developments making it hard to predict the outcome of cases. With the quest to catch rare Pokemon characters causing stampedes from the Taiwanese capital Taipei to New York's Central Park, Wassom said public parks and the police needed to take more responsibility. "I'm surprised that people haven't taken more action against the police departments or public park managers - the people responsible for managing the properties that (they) are complaining about."
Back in Sydney, Wong said she wrote to her local council complaining about the disturbance, saying some players had jumped fences to trespass on private property. Nothing came of her efforts. Eventually, after the local community in Rhodes mobilised through a Facebook group and began petitioning Niantic for change, the Pokestops were removed without explanation or warning.
By Lin Taylor and Sally Hayden