Pokémon Go: augmented reality tests IP

Author:Andres Guadamuz
Position:Senior Lecturer in Intellectual Property Law, University of Sussex, United Kingdom

Pokémon Go is an augmented reality app produced by U.S. developer Niantic. With over 500 million downloads worldwide and an impressive number of active users, it has quickly become the most popular mobile game in history. Beyond its success as an app, the game marks a milestone in technology history in that it is the first successful mainstream example of augmented reality – a technology that... (see full summary)


The game

The game consists of monster-like characters called “pokémon” which players try to catch by throwing a “poke-ball”. Through augmented reality, the game encourages players to interact with their environment using realistic maps of their surroundings that highlight or tag landmarks, monuments and public buildings. These locations are called stops and contain in-game goods, such as pokémon eggs and potions, for use in battling opposing teams. The game also features “gyms”, where users can combat other pokémon for control over a location, usually a church, park or business.

Legal questions

The tagging element of the game has prompted a number of interesting legal questions about the role of augmented reality. Niantic, the developer of the game, is using a combination of data from Google Maps and user-generated tags collected from an earlier augmented reality game called Ingress. This data is used to identify real-life spots as either a stop or a gym. So far, many of the legal questions arising from the game have centered around privacy, but it also raises a number of interesting issues relating to intellectual property (IP). For example, the game relies on user-generated content to populate the “Pok” world with locations and points of interest, but who owns that content? And perhaps more importantly, do individuals have any right over virtual spaces? Could someone object to their house being used as a Pokémon gym on IP grounds?

Who owns the content?

As outlined above, geo-location is an integral part of Pokémon Go. Players search out Pokémon characters in the real world using maps of their immediate surroundings which tag specific locations and points of interest. But who owns those data? While it is not clearly stated in the Pokémon Go documentation, these maps appear to be generated using data from Google Maps.

Beyond ownership of the map data, of greater interest is who owns all the valuable geo-location data, including the pictures and place names that are an integral part of the game. Most commentators agree that initially Niantic collected the data for Ingress, which predates Pokémon Go. Ingress is a futuristic geo-location game where players take over portals in another dimension. These portals are the same points of interest used in Pokémon Go. Some websites even suggest that players who want a new gym established in their location simply submit a portal request through Ingress. Portal data can be quite detailed, and can...

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