In another post, this writer discussed Covid through a discussion of what is normal and mentioned, briefly, this concept of the metaverse. As we embrace things that are becoming normal, many legal professionals have conducted a large amount of business virtually utilizing platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom. Many more may not even realize that these “normal platforms” are, at minimum, precursors to what companies plan for the metaverse.
You may have seen the news that Facebook, Inc., changed its name to Meta Platforms, Inc., in the fall of 2021. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO, says the company did this to showcase its commitment to the development of a metaverse. But Meta Platforms isn’t the only player in the metaverse game, nor can it be. More recently, Microsoft purchased the video game holding company Activision Blizzard to continue its development of its idea of the metaverse. And Nvidia has been developing the Omniverse as its own metaverse. The list of companies participating in metaverse activities is numerous and varied. But what are these companies doing and why does it matter to the readers of a law school blog?
These companies are shaping Internet 3.0, what is popularly called the metaverse. The metaverse is defined as “a virtual-reality space in which users can interact with a computer-generated environment and other users.” Companies like Meta, Microsoft, Nvidia, Roblox and many more are building unique virtual universes with which users can interact and users can interact with each other. For example, Microsoft hopes that its Teams platform can be further developed into a metaverse where businesses hold meetings, not just through a camera and speaker, but with users projecting or control an avatar into a virtual meeting room. With the aid of devices like Oculus Rift or HoloLens, such a futuristic meeting may be just around the corner.
For legal professionals, indeed for most of the United States these past two years, working in a shared space is not unusual. It’s normal now. We have all used Zoom or Teams or Skype or Facetime or some other video chat application to host or attend a legal seminar, class, or even court. Many have groaned, lately, that returning to an in-person experience is necessary. Maybe it is, but we seem to be doing OK with the way things are. Perhaps, as the metaverse develops and we can cast ourselves into digital avatars, our predisposition to having things in person will dissipate.
But the prospect of hosting a virtual meeting where you can look around and see those in attendance, the ability to project oneself into a digital arbitration room, and even the possibility of having court completely in a virtual space—allowing us to utilize the space of the courtroom from our own houses—these things are scarcely why the metaverse is relevant to the legal profession. In fact, it is the burgeoning “legal metaverse” that encourages this writer to talk about the metaverse.
There are many uncertainties about the metaverse; among the most important is the set of rules that will govern myriad things. Currently, the various metaverses are subject to the terms and conditions of whatever company is permitting the user access. But can the metaverse simply remain a licensing agreement similar to digital video games or digital music, subject to terms and conditions favorable to the corporation and preventing true ownership by the user? If the metaverse is to continue expanding in the world of property, what will the cases be like governing ownership?
How does someone own the original source code for the internet as a non-fungible token (NFT)? A non-fungible token is a unit of information recorded on a blockchain. They are unique to an item and, because they function on blockchain, are difficult to alter. One change along a blockchain will change all the blocks following the changed block. But this is just code; sure, it’s traceable code tracked in a difficult-to-amend ledger, but it’s ultimately just code. Code isn’t like art in that a copy of one painting may be a little different than another because the painter used a slightly different stroke. One copy of a work of art will have the same digital code as another, save the NFT. In the future—strike that, in the now—will we see an upsurge of litigation over NFTs and whether they are as safe as their creators would have us believe.
What about ownership that doesn’t involve art, or the first source code of the internet? What if someone purchases virtual land in a particular metaverse? What if it is a country? How can a country establish an embassy in a virtual space owned by a corporation? Ask Barbados, the country established the first national embassy in the metaverse in November 2021. Barbados hopes that this virtual embassy will function much the same as its physical embassies and expand the connections that the country has. Is the data that Barbados transmits in the embassy—protected information and the like—sufficiently secure from hackers and ne’er-do-wells?
This writer has, unashamedly, no idea what the future of law will look like regarding the metaverse. Perhaps it will fall neatly into the areas of law established already. Perhaps we will create new law to govern the metaverse because it is uncharted territory. Whatever we decide, care is the key because litigation and legislation in this area will certainly have a profound impact on the trajectory of all humankind, not just one country or another. The metaverse is a uniquely connected place, developing quickly in many different directions and may one day resemble the Oasis from Ready Player One. The metaverse may be a place where countries can collaborate peacefully to fully address problems in the future, but only if the legal community is ponderous in litigation and legislation.
Enjoy some more reading on the metaverse: