Amidst all that is going on in the world just now, I bet you a Jigglypuff you will have heard someone talking about Pokémon. You might not exactly know what this is, but you can still be affected, as this church in Glasgow discovered. You might have been bemused by the idea of people wandering around, smartphone in hand, chasing imaginary creatures in the augmented reality world of Pokémon GO. Or you might be an avid fan, so much so that you can identify with those who crowded into New York’s Central Park when a Vaporeon popped up.
This advance into augmented reality is a fun development for many and, it appears, a profitable one for Nintendo. That being the case, as the app has been rolled out across the world (launching in its native Japan today, as reported by BBC News) it has not been without issues. That news report highlights the first Japanese accident associated with the game has already occurred, after someone fell down some real stairs whilst distracted by the game. As it rolls across reality, it is clear there are safety issues involved with immersing yourself in augmented reality: in Scotland it might be mountainous terrain, in Bosnia it might be landmines. Its augmented reality has also rolled over the legal reality of various jurisdictions. The reality of realty, that is to say the reality of property law, allows landowners to take steps to retain and regain exclusive possession of their land in many circumstances. What those steps are will depend which jurisdiction a Pidgey nests in.
What can a Scottish landowner do? In principle, the owner of land can get an interdict (a court order prohibiting certain conduct, equivalent to an English injunction) to prevent someone encroaching on her land by, for example, building on it. Similar orders could be obtained if someone was to undermine it or periodically intrude on it by swinging the jib of a crane over it. What about someone who turns up uninvited to your land without such profound plans? All they want to do is catch a Pikachu and move on, (hopefully) leaving the land itself undamaged and any real animals on it undisturbed. Can they do that?
Access to land in Scotland has been much discussed and often misunderstood. A commonly expressed sentiment is that there is no law of trespass in Scotland. That is not quite right, but from the other end of the spectrum a landowner putting up a sign saying ‘TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED’ is likely to be sorely disappointed if it comes to an attempt to do so. Such signs might well suggest a desire to instigate criminal action against uninvited guests, but that is normally a matter for a public prosecutor in Scotland, namely the local procurator fiscal, rather than a landowner. Meanwhile, there are some circumstances when being on land can be a criminal offence, particularly if you are part of a disorderly group or if you cause damage to property or wildlife, but a careful Pokémon hunter should be able to avoid such offences. Indeed, a one-time, harmless trespasser might not even be liable for civil damages to a landowner in Scotland, although that should not be taken as an invitation to strut anywhere with impunity. Scotland is also criss-crossed by a number of defined public rights of way, allowing people to travel from one public place to another without fear of landowner challenge.
That gives an idea of the underlying Scots law position. That position has actually been liberalised by recent reforms, making the legal terrain even friendlier for access takers. The key legislation that does that is Part 1 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. It gives everyone – yes, everyone, that is exactly what the statute says – rights to cross land or to be on land for certain purposes, including recreational purposes, subject to certain exceptions based on the character of the land or the conduct that is undertaken.
Those access rights are not unchecked: they must be exercised responsibly. Activity is not responsible if it interferes with the rights of other people, which includes other access takers as well as the landowner: if one person is lazily approaching a Snorlax, perhaps you should think carefully before you barge past them. There are also certain things that can never be classed as responsible, such as ‘hunting, shooting or fishing’ or taking motorised access (unless doing that in a vehicle which has been constructed or adapted for use by a person who has a disability). Although the term ‘hunting’ is not defined, it is respectfully submitted that hunting relates to real animals as opposed to augmented reality imaginary creatures.
Some land is excluded from the scope of access rights entirely, regardless of the conduct of a purported access taker. Access rights are simply incompatible with certain features on or of excluded land, such as a building, the ‘curtilage’ immediately surrounding a building, or a reasonably sized garden next to a dwelling. From this, we can glean that the interior of the church mentioned above would not be included in Scotland’s liberal access regime. Other exclusions include longstanding attractions where a fee is payable for entry, like Blair Drummond Safari Park, a sports field when it is in use, or farmland where crops are growing. Anyone seeking entry to such should ideally obtain permission: the ‘gotta catch ’em all’ defence will not wash here. In fact, Farmers Weekly has already carried an article warning Pokémon Go players to keep clear of farms.
Assuming the land itself is not excluded from access rights, can playing an augmented reality video game be classed as recreation? Recreation is not defined, but the Scottish Outdoor Access Code‘s (PDF) explanation of the term (at paragraph 2.7) is that it includes:
- pastimes (such as watching wildlife, sightseeing, painting, photography and enjoying historic sites);
- family and social activities (such as short walks, dog walking, picnics, playing, sledging, paddling or flying a kite);
- active pursuits (such as walking, cycling, horse riding, orienteering, caving, air sports and wild camping); and
- participation in events (such as walking or cycling festivals, hill running races, and orienteering events.
It does not seem a massive stretch to include Pokémon chasing as analogous to some of these activities, most notably orienteering.
All in all, it seems Scotland has a regime that is quite conducive to catching ’em all. What would be the position of an English landowner? It would be fair to say that England is not traditionally viewed as having a liberal access regime. Crucially, in England the very act of being on another person’s land without permission can give the relevant landowner a claim in damages, but England has also witnessed some important statutory reforms that widen access rights away from the traditional (delimited) public footpaths and occasional voluntary agreements.
The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 applies to mapped open access land, which includes mountains, moor, heath and down, and registered commons (making a much smaller proportion of the country available for access when contrasted with Scotland, in the region of 865,000 acres). That legislation confers the right to enter and remain on land for the purposes of open-air recreation, but that right is restricted by twenty exceptions listed in a schedule to the statute. The overall effect of this scheme would allow someone to walk on land, accompanied by a dog (but no other animal) and stop for a picnic, but not use a metal detector, camp or bathe in non-tidal water. What about gaming? There is an exception relating to ‘organised games’. Previous DEFRA guidance suggested ‘organised games’ included ‘those which use a set pitch or defined area of play, organised starts and finishes and associated infrastructure, and which involves the participation of a number of people or a competitive element. On the other hand, we do not consider that a family group or a small group of friends engaging in an ad-hoc game of rounders or cricket, playing with a frisbee etc are “organised games”.‘ As such, Pokémon hunting might just be alright in the areas mapped as open land, and perhaps also in coastal areas by virtue of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009.
Important as those areas are, what about the substantial area of land not covered by such legislation? In those circumstances, players may have to hope their desired Pokémon appears on an existing village green (which might not actually need to be green at all), or will be relying on a sympathetic landowner to allow access.
Each legal system may have different insights to bring to this new legal situation. Of particular interest to the liberally minded are the Norwegian friluftsliv, which translates as the ‘open air life’, and the Swedish allemansrätten and Finnish jokamiehenoikeus, which translate as ‘every man’s right’. For those in favour of a stricter approach, that mindset seems to be evident in many states in the USA. Wherever you are, there will be some considerations for landowners and access takers to work through: putting up a sign berating all things Pokémon is all well and good, but will it be enforceable?
Of course, there are other legal issues that might need to be considered. There might be a new issue for the future: should there be a remedy for a landowner against the person who projects augmented reality apparatus onto her land? This would not quite be analogous with a traditional nuisance by a neighbouring landowner or the situation of a photo or political slogan being projected onto a landmark. Alternatively, might there be some kind of negligence if people are lured to an unsuitable location?
Those challenges are for another day. All in all, it might be an idea to embrace the technology and make the best of it. That is what my own university seems to be doing, after all.
Although the allegedly grown-up Malcolm Combe is a lecturer in the School of Law, he remembers fondly the carefree days when he would come home from school to watch a TV double-header of Pokémon then cult Channel 4 quiz show ‘Countdown’. He also went to see ‘Pokémon: the First Movie’ in the cinema with his wee sister. He is delighted to find his latent knowledge of things like Team Rocket and Charmanders are once again relevant, and even more delighted to have combined that with some legal analysis.
This post is by Malcolm Combe