Here’s a reminder about virtual reality: it’s virtual. That should not be news, but 2016 is a wild year for reality, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.
This is also worth remembering because virtual reality, no matter how real it may appear, is not tangible. It is an illusion strapped to your face, which is great, but still not real. And that distinction matters when it comes time to figure out what legal protections apply to virtual reality creations.
Specifically, this is a concern for objects that are scanned in meatspace to later be used in virtual reality. The problem is copyright law exists to protect original expression, not scanned-in duplicates of real objects. As Brian D Wassom explains in an excellent blog post on the subject:
While it may be amazing to experience such images in this new medium, the “dimensional shift” and hard work alone won’t be enough to afford the imagery copyright protection.
Why is that important? Because an image that isn’t protected by copyright is, instead, in the public domain, where it is free to be copied by others. No virtual tourism company wants to sink millions of dollars into recreating scenes that anyone else can come and take for free.
Versions, if you had not previously noted, is not here to compete with SCOTUSBlog or Popehat in the legal blogosphere. However, it is within our purview to note that the vagaries of intellectual property law inescapably affect creative outputs, and those consequences eventually seep into consumer experiences. (In other words, what follows is not a legal treatise that you should take to court—but if you do, kindly let us know how that went.)
there is little financial incentive to do the initial scanning of meatspace
On the one hand, the lack of copyright protection for scanned surfaces means that anyone (within reason) can play with them. This way creativity lies! After all, if the only way to gain further protections is to modify and create new variants, as Wassom discusses, then there is an incentive to do interesting things. If you want less verisimilitude and more weirdness, that is good news.
That, mind you, is an incredibly narrow and optimistic reading of what this copyright situation means. In a broader sense, it also means that there is little financial incentive to do the initial scanning of meatspace. There’s your chicken-and-egg problem, dear consumer of VR: you want an incentive for people to scan things but you also want an incentive for people to modify such things. Those two imperatives are somewhat reconcilable, but not perfectly or easily so. And that, in a nutshell, is the state of VR: lots of money being spent within structures that make it unclear how and when it’ll be recouped.