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Metaverse and Intellectual Property Law: What Must Be Asked?

When I usually write a blog post, first I do pre-investigation and then share the knowledge I acquired from various sources after filtering through critical thinking. But there is one phenomenon that most of us have been very recently exposed to and reacted differently so that I decided to share my thoughts and concerns more spontaneously. Here is Metaverse! Specifically, I want to approach this phenomenon from the perspective of intellectual property law and shed a light on the issue that makes me think over (in fact, concern).

 

Metaverse is a virtual space where the users can communicate via their avatars on a three-dimensional platform. More simply, it can be explained like a three-dimensional version of the social networks that we use in a two-dimensional format. To access Metaverse, the users are to be able to use virtual reality headsets or augmented reality glasses, and smartphones, personal computers and game consoles. In other words, it is planned to integrate unconnected multiple virtual spaces (games, workplaces, art spaces), which are not affordable to the large proportion of the society for now, into the technologies that people can more easily access. Once this integration is complete, we must be able to access those different virtual platforms from the same Metaverse. At least, this is what the currently planned model tells us. While you are now communicating with your friends through two-dimensional monitors in your mailbox, Metaverse is targeting to omit those monitors (or intermediaries), take you to your friends and let you interact with them via your avatars face-to-face and monitor-free.


To me, the best example to envisage Metaverse is the massively multiplayer online role-playing games like Second Life where you can personally participate in the game using virtual reality technologies, carry out various missions, sell your designed products for cryptocurrency, transfer to the game the works you have created in real and even create them in the game. Regarding creativity, I am not going to discuss the other speculation and matters about Metaverse like information privacy and users' addition. My focus is intellectual property.


The sub-institutes of intellectual property law are there to protect the creations of the mind, so the first question comes naturally: who owns the work in Metaverse? Of course, the answer to this question can be the person who created the work, the Metaverse platform itself or its producer or other participants. In fact, my purpose here is not to address this question but signal the current mechanisms that can provide a response and especially, warn about the concern that generates the very question.


Metaverse or other alternative platforms are going to make already-institutionalized intellectual property law more complicated and increase the intermediaries between the work and legal ownership. To compare, the person who creates a work in the real world does not need any registration or official declarations to be entitled to copyright on that work, because the legal ownership emerges ipso jure. The current system adopted by copyright law is more or less the same in all countries, and it is not likely to change. There is no intermediary between the work and the legal ownership (for now). Although some countries have a mandatory registration scheme for musical compositions, cinematographic and multimedia works, such registrations do not have a legal effect to generate rights, but they only serve the registration and tracking the legal ownership of the already-created works upon their completion and the evidence value in possible disputes over ownership. However, as for trademarks, patents and industrial designs, there is a registration system where the official registration generates rights. Without prejudice to the exceptions (like in use-based systems), the legal owner is the person who registers the invention or the trademark, not those who actually first created the invention or first used the sign in commerce. Here there is already an intermediary between the creator and the legal ownership, and those intermediaries are specialized patent agencies/offices. What about the works or inventions created in Metaverse?


Since Metaverse is a virtual space, we can discuss the intellectual property ownership of the works created by the users outside the Metaverse and transferred thereto and of the works created in Metaverse. The practice of virtual games has shown that the User Terms and Conditions concluded between the user and platform owner on such virtual spaces do not omit intellectual property matters. Yes, I am talking about the agreements that most of us do not read but sign when downloading the applications from Playstore, Apple Store or on the Internet. The application of a similar system to Metaverse or at least the proposal of such analogy is possible, therefore, worth discussing. For example, Section 5 of the Terms and Conditions of Second Life virtual game allows the users to use the original content they have integrated into the game and seemingly does not claim any copyright thereon and recognizes the users' copyright. Possibly, similar rules may or may not be adopted on Metaverse. In such agreements, Metaverse may make the users accept the copyright ownership of Metaverse on the works created in the virtual space and license the users the right to use those works.


While being hopeful for retaining copyright ownership of the users on the works created in the real world but transferred to Metaverse, meaning the works on which the copyright ownership has already been "born", the fate of the copyright ownership on the works created in Metaverse using the elements, such as clothing accessories, special kinds of cloth or so on, presented by the virtual space (and probably protected under copyright laws) may not be that clear. In this regard, Metaverse may turn into an intermediary between the creator of the work and the legal ownership, the intermediary that does not exist in the real world (of copyright). Because in the real world, the tools the creators of works use or get inspired from are naturally there. When a poet takes a pen and a piece of paper to write a poem, they are not worried about the copyright claims on the work from the creators of the pen or paper. In contrast, in Metaverse, not to mention the paper and the pen, even the fonts, size - the formal expression of the work belongs to the virtual space and maybe also protected under copyright. Even though it is proposed that Metaverse is going to be a decentralized space unlike current social networks, this concept is not completely clear yet. For now, it is not convincing that such a virtual space will exist without pre-determined community rules or user terms and conditions or that the producers will not claim any intellectual property rights on the works created in Metaverse.


To sum up, the intermediaries in copyright between the work and the legal ownership may increase from 0 to 1, while in patent or other registration-based intellectual property systems from 1 to 2. The question that must make intellectual property lawyers busy today is not the legal ownership but to what extent the increasing number of intermediaries between the legal ownership and the creator is consistent with the fundamental purposes or incentives of intellectual property law.

 

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