Freedom of Augmented Panorama

Yesterday, Apple unveiled iPhone X, its new flagship phone. It’s most exciting feature, according to most experts, is its Augmented Reality (AR) platform. App producers are already responding with a surge of interest in AR apps. So this seems like a good moment to speculate about AR as intellectual property. The bigger AR becomes, the more it will be important to fight for the AR space to be a public domain. Otherwise, the (virtual) world before our eyes will be full of price tags. And challenges that today surround the issue of freedom of panorama will grow exponentially.

Augmented Reality of the XIX century — stained-glass windows in the Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA (+ glitch)

World Lenses, Ahoy!

In April, Snap (the company behind Snapchat — if all naming conventions were that simple!) has unveiled a new Augmented Reality function for their Snapchat app, called World Lenses. Behind a very confusing name hide persistent virtual objects that can be positioned in the frame of a photo, and which remain there as one reframes the shot. Lenses are just one of many flavors of AR objects that are becoming available — you can also chose from GIphy’s AR GIFs, IKEA’s AR furniture and zombies.

Can World Lenses be freely licensed? They’re not, but they could be. For now, these AR properties do not differ from more traditional types of content. They could be licensed — but they are not. Mainly because Snapchat, like many mobile apps, does not believe in copying and sharing — offering users closed streams of content instead.

What if AR becomes persistent?

Today, AR objects are not persistent. The AR magic happens for a short time, within the virtual space of a single mobile device, and a single mobile app. Things will become way more interesting the the day you see someone else’s AR object in your own Snapchat frame. Or when the funny creature from Giphy World begins interacting generatively with Walking Dead zombies.

On that day, we will experience the beginning of a shared AR space (and finally reality will start to resemble the cyberspace of science-fiction dreams). Such spaces have already been created — Pokemon Go is one such, famous, example. In the game, there are persistent places called Gyms, which are persistent and can be occupied by players. But Pokemon Go offered a very simple AR environment, one that was not really interweaved into the real world (I am not counting the primitive experience of having a digital critter roughly superimposed over whatever background you pointed your camera at). Pokemon Go shared in fact just geographical locations, but not AR views.

What happens once AR objects will become persistent? We will experience a completely new visual public space, occupying the same space as the “real world” that we see with our un-augmented eyes. What will this change? Real world will in one more ways adopt elements and properties of the digital. Of course, real objects will still be made of atoms, and AR objects will be made of bits and be visible through some interface (initially a smartphone, soon maybe glasses, or contact lenses?). But the AR layer will form a shared, visual public space that on one hand will feel quite “real”, and on the other can be layered, collectively designed, and produced with low production and distribution costs typical until now of online (“virtual”) content. This will also be a space, in which the things that we see before our eyes might be commonly copyrighted. (Unless we do something with this issue).

Regulating Augmented Spaces

Emergence of AR public space will raise issues that follow well known trajectories that concern sustainability of public spaces, but translated into new technological conditions. Take the challenge of regulating ads in urban spaces (solved in some cities, and remaining an acute problem in Warsaw, where I live). Then exponentially grow the severity of the issue, and you have one of the darker possible scenarios concerning unfettered AR development. In it, every bit of urban space is an ad space to be filled, with huge, 3D floating adds in garrish, neon colors.

To mitigate this, we can imagine that the AR public space becomes regulated. But if we learned any lessons from all previous switches to digital, traditional regulatory models that work for analog things break when applied to digital. One cannot take laws that regulate placement of monuments and statues in urban spaces, and apply it to the placement of giant, VR cuddly creatures that will probably constitute 80% of proposed AR objects. The latter will have different physical properties, different symbolic value, and function in a space of abundance, and not scarcity.

Probably, it will also not be possible to preserve the basic sensibility of our currently shared “real reality” — once AR public space is introduced, it will not be used to make reality look just like it did before. That’s never the point of technology, especially when it’s created by companies that like the verb “disrupt”. Keeping a “clean” AR view might soon be just one of many choices, and quite possibly a quaint one.

One obvious solution will be to layer this AR space, just like one layers images in graphic design programs. Then, with a switch of a button, a voice command or a thought, one can simply select layers of interest. This would be unlike anything we experience today. Commercial, branded layers superimposed over public spaces. Fragmented experiences of different private layers, mimicking the fragmentation experienced today on Facebook and other social networks. Official layers controlled by governments — with safety information, obligatory educational content, or propaganda.

But then we need to face a crucial issue that we already face with regard to the effects of technologies on social relations in online spaces, or with regard to shared heritage in times of fragmented digital culture. We will need to ensure a sense of collective identity that connect us, of commonality and solidarity — at the most basic level of visual experience of the world.


Copyright law will also be an aspect of AR regulation. Today, a similar issue is defined by the term freedom of panorama: the right to make photos of buildings and other permanent structures, even if they are copyrighted (Yes, you can copyright a building — but not yet a mountain or a tree). The right to do so feels like a basic right related to our functioning in public spaces. Yet many rightholders believe that they have a right to charge people for taking such photographs.

In persistent AR space, the debate on the freedom of panorama will gain renewed importance, and become even more heated. Imagine navigating a visual space filled not just with architectural objects with vague copyright status, but with content that’s obviously copyrighted — such as corporate media properties. Will you be able to photograph it, or share your current view over a messaging app?

In a world without Freedom of AR Panorama, this will be an everyday reality. Photo: WIkimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

One obvious solution would be to enforce a freedom of panorama exception covering the AR space as a whole. A fresh start, for a true AR public domain, without any of the challenges related to a jumble of copyright rules and rights and licenses. But that rosy scenario will most probably not happen, and instead we will face a very strong push to establish strong IPR protection on the new AR frontier, and related fragmentation of rules governing AR.

What could we do to push the stakes at least a bit in the direction of free and open AR? My bet would be on working with AR platforms, such as Snapchat, to enable free licensing as soon as possible — so that a flexible copyright regime is woven into the new AR space from the very start.

A legislative reform scenario feels very unlikely, seeing how current copyright reforms are stuck not even in the present, but in XX century challenges. Maybe there is space for a speculative copyright reform action, a legislative design fiction that would establish an AR public domain at least symbolically.