Since its origin the use of the internet has been (until now) mostly an interaction between people. From initially exchanging documents between scientists, to email communications among people, and then social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and TikTok, the internet has provided creative communications avenues for digital interaction. Amazon began as an online bookstore but now Amazon sells anything and everything. Others followed suit and the media prophets proclaimed that brick and mortar stores were doomed.
Intellectual property laws are, of course, still relevant in the electronic commerce world but are sometimes quite difficult to enforce. Often, the identity of a website’s owner/seller-of-goods is elusive. The laws relating to infringement of a patent, trademark or a copyright have no clear route for enforcement in the digital universe. If you don’t know who the infringer is, then you don’t know against whom and where to bring suit. How do you transmit a cease and desist letter/email to a phantom infringer? Slowly but surely, social media platforms accepted the challenge of resolving these issues and the wild and woolly internet became more civilized. The dramatic acceptance of this form of commerce is apparent by the huge volume of goods and services now transferred electronically, and the satisfaction of the buyers utilizing this evolving retail model.
We are now being told that a new internet phase is forthcoming – a phase called “The Metaverse.” Although not yet fully functional and not yet fully accepted, the Metaverse has been exalted as the next nirvana for entertainment. It is almost certain that this next stage, if successful, will also be accepted by businesses as a new commerce pathway that all must partake in (or be left behind). As we have seen in the past, those that desire to quickly cash in on the newest commercial action often ignore the rules, and specifically the laws relating to intellectual property protection.
The Metaverse has been defined as that virtual reality where real people (and likewise real businesses) assume an image (an avatar) that is visible to others and acts as a proxy for the actual person/business. Replicating someone’s business avatar to ride on the coattails of that person’s success will undoubtedly occur. The questions arise: “Who is behind the counterfeit avatar and what jurisdiction prevails to determine what laws apply?” In a scenario where the interaction between buyer and seller transcends political boundaries, laws and rules are needed to restrain unfair competition. Political boundaries are also barriers to the promulgation and enactment of laws and rules. Unfortunately, the Metaverse will be a commercial reality well before political figures understand and react to all this.
We foresee that beyond this Metaverse there will be a new sensory level (the “next” phase) in which a person doesn’t look through an electronic display to enjoy some form of entertainment or purchase a good or service. Instead, that person will step into a landscape of holographic images that may be viewed and even smelt, touched, and felt, replacing actuality with a nearly identical virtual reality. One can only imagine the opportunities this presents to sellers of good and services, eliminating the need for upkeep of a number of brick-and-mortar structures and instead only dealing with the upkeep of a single piece of software. The playing field between established retailers and newbie traders may be leveled since one virtual store may suffice. Retailers such as Walmart will not need over two million employees to support its network of facilities that deliver goods and services at the point of purchase. Robotic delivery services will become ubiquitous.
In this scenario, as in other like scenarios, opportunistic individuals will take advantage of a world of commerce that has no established guidelines and rules. Counterfeit virtual holographic stores and entertainment experiences will appear. And then again, these questions will become paramount: Who is the infringer? What is the controlling jurisdiction? What laws can be used to stop the transgressions?