There's a Starbuck's on the Corner, There's a Starbuck's on the Corner

The anxiety about who owns reality with all of this augmented reality innovation going on in mobile phones may not be as important as it appears at first blush.

With the rise of augmented reality software in phones like the iPhone and the Droid, what's stopping hackers from breaking into the source and tagging virtual grafitti all over a Target logo, ruining your shopping experience and causing brief-bunching fits of legal anxiety for Target?

What if a social media manager places a Domino's pizza logo on the White House?

With the rise of augmented reality, are the battened down hatches on reality coming undone? Are intellectual property rights holders at risk of losing their shit?

Should shop owners and monuments caretakers be nervous? Who really owns reality anymore?I certainly don't have the answers, so I asked a lawyer, of course. Lawyers know things.

"Oh, I love this kind of thing. Intellectual property law does apply and it is worked out who does own reality," says Steve Masur, the founding partner of Masur Law in NYC's financial district. He's just published a book called "Collective Rights Licensing at the ISP Level," which is due out soon.

"Many of these problems are already addressed in intellectual property law," he says. When you talk about legal implications of AR, it's important to use examples, says Masur, since every case is different. But here's kind of how cases leveraging intellectual property law have led some lawyers to view AR, and it's not as complex as it might seem.

Here's an example, to give us a foundation: I can stand on a corner of Lafayette and St. Marks and tell you that Starbuck's is serving a $5 coffee. And you can pay me for it. That's legal. Although why people would offer you money for something you already know, or can assume pretty reasonably on your own is beyond me.

However, I can set up a coffee stand out in front of Starbucks and sell US$4 coffee and call it Starbuck's. Now, that is not legal.

"When you get into AR, it's fascinating," says Masur. "We're entering an age where everything is tagged, and categorized, and followed." That incessant recording, and re-cording, and "claiming" as one's own a brand or a monument, or a singer in one's own way is where the line gets blurry.

But for the legal eagles, it's all about expansiveness of use, and real harm caused by intellectual property theft or misuse. Take Cervantes for example. After the writer died, many years later a guy took "Don Quixote" and he re-wrote it, word for word, in Spanish. He got sued. They went to court. He pleaded not guilty and asserted that what he was doing was actually performance art. How did the court rule?

"They decided it was a public policy decision," says Masur. "It was unlikely that it would become mass copying on a large scale." As for the virtual graffiti that many logo owners or business proprietors might fear, that's pretty much easily solved, too, as far as I was able to figure it out.

Masur uses another example: a tagger in the real world writes his tag next to a billboard. And as part of his tag, he spray paints a competing url next to the business owner's url. "It's just a public space and there is nothing that anyone can do about it. What he's doing is illegal," says Masur. But they will likely ding him for defacing public property, not taking over reality.

At issue here is that technology has only amplified what already exists by supplying another lens through which to see the world. "Lens is a perfect world," says Masur. "You are looking at the world through a device; it can be a piece of glass, or a piece of glass with additional information. That doesn't really violate intellectual property rights of any intellectual property."

So, you could look forward to your favorite hactivist graffiti artist coming to whatever app viewfinder you like to use soon, I think. It's going to get much easier for people to have their way with reality. The funny thing is, reality won't change much. Just perception.

Masur's law book will be available at the International Association for Entertainment Lawyers site after Masur and some panelists give a seminar on the book at MIDEM in January. And Masur didn't even ask me to write about this. I just thought it was cool. Oh, yeah, the book contains an interview with the bassist from DEVO.

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