Rights Management in Augmented Reality

Previous posts in this series have been about foundational AR technology already being built and deployed. This post will branch in a new direction, summarizing issues surrounding rights and permissions in AR — proposing some answers to the questions about who controls the creation and display of virtual augmentations in our real world spaces.

These questions have been posed before, often voiced with a palpable anxiety — “What if someone defaces my property in AR?” Articles from Slate, Techcrunch, NewScientist, Wired, FastCompany, and several more tech journalism sites exemplify a growing concern without solution — and while some of this coverage extends the long tradition of stoking techno-FUD for clicks, there are a number of legitimate concerns worthy of discussion. Furthermore, while early AR applications today are largely frivolous, the recent availability of persistence in AR, we should expect to see a wide range of digital content and services distributed via mobile AR interfaces. When these begin to arrive, it will become even easier to imagine AR becoming the next major computer interface — and with it a huge amount of highly valuable unclaimed virtual territory.

Here’s some important distinctions that will make a more productive conversation possible.

Material Reality vs Augmented Realities

An AR Project revealing many graffiti pieces, each covering the same section of a wall.

Our collective understanding of rights management in physical spaces rests heavily upon the singular, mutually exclusive nature of physical objects in physical space. More plainly, two real objects cannot occupy the same place at the same time. This is true for every tangible object in the real world, and our social mores and laws justifiably presume as much. In AR, things do not work this way, so the rules we use to govern AR should reflect this.

There are two situations when my use of AR in a space need not conflict with anyone else’s real or virtual use of the same space: where we are using separate AR apps, and where sharing controls limit the visibility of our creations.

An example of Facebook’s sharing controls, circled in red.

Let’s look at both.

Separate Geospatial Indices

In the same way that photos created with Instagram do not appear in Snapchat, augmentations created in one AR application will not appear in another. This is largely because every AR application developer is currently left to their own devices when it comes to building the back-end infrastructure used to manage and store their augmentations. However, much of the debate surrounding AR property rights management is based on the assumption of a singular, integrated Augmented Reality.

In the future, we can expect to see platform-as-a-service type companies popping up to provide back-end geospatialized augmentation storage infrastructure to AR application developers. Escher Reality (recently acquired and taken off the market by Niantic) is an example of such a service. However, even in instances where two applications use the same back-end server stack, it is more likely to expect those augmentations to be isolated in some way, such that the augmentations never conflict with each other.

Until we see investment in the development of sharing controls, we should not expect to see integrated geospatial indices, alleviating many of the concerns about AR “graffiti” appearing in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Sharing and Filtering Controls

Even within a singular AR application, it is possible for conflicted use of the same space to arise. Within each application there are often no controls limiting access to created augmentations. Eventually, the creation of responsible sharing controls will be necessary to manage these rights and augmentations.

Unfortunately, if history has anything to teach us about this, before any standards will make interoperability between applications possible, we should expect to see a wide variety of incompatible sharing controls popping up. In the same way that sharing on Facebook is completely different from sharing within Google services, we can expect AR to follow suit. Furthermore, though standards-based protocols and controls are a necessary eventuality, standards take time to mature, often informed by the mistakes of a past which hasn’t yet transpired.

A Picture Is Worth 1000 Words

In the same way that the spoken word, the written word, the printed word, illustrations, musical performance, sculpture, photography, cinematography, videography, and video games have each been through their journey of testing and expanding our collective understanding of “speech”, so will virtual augmentations find their place. While these augmentations are surely different and novel in that they are contextualized in their surrounding environment, so are other forms of expression. Yet merely including augmentations as speech does not solve the issues we can expect to see in the future — AR has at least as much potential for contention and conflict as any other form of speech, especially online.

In the absence of AR sharing controls, some people feel strongly that property owners should have the right to remove augmentations from the spaces under their real world control. At first this may seem reasonable, but in practice this idea amounts to asserting that no one can make a particular kind of statement about a place under someone else’s control, which is unreasonably restrictive (and extraordinarily difficult in practice).

For an example of what these statements might look like, imagine a machine-readable version of the following “plain” english sentence:

“There is an otherwise invisible, intangible avocado represented by the following glTF model at the world coordinates of 38.8976763,-77.0365298. https://raw.githubusercontent.com/KhronosGroup/glTF-Sample-Models/master/2.0/Avocado/glTF/Avocado.gltf

Instead, it will be necessary to take under consideration the venue and audience amongst whom the speech is shared. In the case of augmentations, this venue is the geospatial index where the augmentation is stored. (Until we share a common index for our augmentations, one could make the case that these augmentations are private, only for the enlisted users of a given application, and therefore landlords have no rights to limit this “private” speech.)

Some Informed Legal Perspectives

At this point, it may be obvious that the ideas put forth in this article are not born of legal expertise. However, these issues have already been tested in courts, resulting in a supportive outcome for the creators of AR applications, classifying those augmentations as protected speech.

Brian Wassom summarizing his successful Candylab case against Milwaukee

As far as I know, the very notion of “AR as speech” is attributable to Brian Wassom, and he explains this position in this post from 2013. More recently, at AWE2018 a panel of attorneys (including Wassom) revisit the question of property rights in AR:

Law and ARder panel at AWE2018

Secondly, dozens of AR applications with persistent augmentations are already widely deployed without consideration for this issue. So long as it is possible for the producers of AR apps to ask for forgiveness instead of permission, persistent virtual objects are going to be created in great number around the world without a thought given to the imagined rights of property owners. Attempting to put that toothpaste back in the tube is an unenviable and ultimately unrealistic task.

Some Informed Counterpoint

Between AR creator rights and landlord rights, there are indeed qualified legal opinions which favor the landlord. In 2017, Declan T. Conroy published “Property Rights in Augmented Reality” in the Michigan Telecommunications and Technology Law Review, concluding in part:

“While this technology can undoubtedly enhance our environments for the better and inspire people to connect with the world in entirely new ways, the antipodal potential for such technology to digitally vandalize locations or instigate trespassory conduct poses a legitimate threat to owners of real property. However, due in large part to this technology’s intimate connection to the physical world, crafting a regime of property rights in site-specific AR would ultimately be a simple and straightforward exercise.”

While recognizing that the perspective of this post is primarily technical (and not legal), crafting a regime of property rights in site-specific AR will be an extremely challenging, contentious process, as evidenced by the multitude of contemporary non-AR issues surrounding any other form of speech on the Internet.

Getting Ahead of The Problem

For the moment, AR developers are focused on a different set of more immediate problems, such as tracking, asset production, and discovering new spatial user interactions. As persistent AR continues to reach more people, we can expect an increase in both the conflict surrounding AR and the attention it garners.

Instead, AR developers must begin to work together to create and establish flexible sharing controls that reduce the friction of user on-boarding, allow for diverse use cases, and most importantly: enable a harmonious, responsible sharing of space.

The next post will introduce more specific examples of sharing controls, including some early proposals for sharing in AR.