Real Questions Abound in the Virtual World of the Metaverse

The Legal Intelligencer

You have probably heard the hype: the metaverse is “the next big thing.” A paradigm shift in the evolution of the internet, the metaverse refers to digital worlds where people can work, gather and play without leaving their homes—a virtual society independent of the material world.

Tech hype, of course, comes and goes. Google Glass, the Windows Phone, 3D TVs—all these next-generation gadgets lauded as society-changing products, only to fall from the public eye shortly after launch.

But the metaverse may be different. Last year, Facebook rebranded itself as “Meta,” (which means “beyond”) a nod to the social media network’s plan to become an industry leader in the virtual world. Microsoft, meanwhile, recently announced plans to acquire gaming icon Activision Blizzard for $69 billion—by far the largest gaming acquisition in history with plans to expand virtual gaming. And while the metaverse may be in its infancy, there are already a host of legal issues that have scholars and commentators scratching their heads.

What Is the Metaverse?

The metaverse is somewhat of an amorphous concept; it may mean different things to different people. At a basic level, though, it is generally described as an online space where people can socialize, work and play using online avatars. The original metaverse, “Second Life,” offers a good example. Designated online spaces are shared with other avatars and, unlike a Zoom or Teams call, exist after the user is finished accessing them.

Futurists take the metaverse concept a step further, envisioning a more immersive experience that relies on virtual reality headsets, smartphones, computers, and other cloud-connected technologies to bring users into a new virtual world—one with digital neighborhoods, restaurants, homes, parks, businesses and other spaces that parallel our real lives. One Japanese company even developed an armband that uses electrical stimulation to mimic physical sensations (including pain!), allowing users to feel virtual world events in real life. The goal is to create a digital experience that is at once familiar and different from the real world.

What Is the Law of the Metaverse?

Unsurprisingly, a host of fascinating and complex legal questions have arisen alongside metaverse developments. The “virtual real estate” market, for instance, is booming.

In January 2022 alone, sales of metaverse real estate topped $85 million. Hip-hop mogul Snoop Dogg recently sold a single plot of land in the so-called “Snoopverse”—i.e., the metaverse he built in the Sandbox platform—for $450,000. The advent of the metaverse real estate market carries several legal questions: What happens when one avatar trespasses on another’s private property? Can a user mortgage his virtual property? How should “ownership” be defined?

Transactions in the metaverse generally involve cryptocurrency or NFTs (nonfungible tokens). An NFT is a unique digital asset; it could be an image, a piece of music, a video, a 3D object or another type of creative work. From a legal standpoint, this raises an interesting question regarding ownership. Legal commentators, for example, have opined “ownership” in the metaverse is nothing more than a form of licensing, or provision of services, which is different from actual ownership of the asset. This may mean, for example, the “buyer” of an asset cannot sell it without permission from the true owner.

User interactions in the metaverse likewise implicate a host of legal questions. For instance, in what circumstances would an avatar be responsible for their actions in the metaverse?

Imagine one avatar assaults another. Would criminal assault and battery laws apply?  Such crimes require “actual bodily harm,” which, of course, would be challenging to prove in the metaverse.

This is no hypothetical situation, however. In 2021, Meta reported a user had been “groped by a stranger” on one of its VR platforms. The incident ignited heated debates about the nature of harassment—with some taking the position the user hadn’t actually experienced groping because her body wasn’t physically touched. Of course, sexual harassment can be verbal as well, but the incident reveals some legal complications that may arise in response to virtual encounters. And as it currently stands, there is no body of law plainly governing the rights and safety of those participating in virtual worlds.


Questions abound vis-à-vis the parameters governing conduct and transactions occurring in the metaverse. In some cases, existing legal schemes may apply. In others, existing laws make an awkward fit. In still other cases, current laws may prove entirely insufficient.

As society delves deeper into the metaverse, and as organizations begin to incorporate this virtual world into their operations and product offerings, navigating the various legal and regulatory issues that undoubtedly arise will be critical.

“Real Questions Abound in the Virtual World of the Metaverse,” by Jeffrey N. Rosenthal and Thomas F. Brier, Jr. was published in The Legal Intelligencer on March 30, 2022.

Reprinted with permission from the March 30, 2022, edition of The Legal Intelligencer © 2022 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.