Virtual meet-ups - a godsend or a minefield

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Anticipating and accommodating the legal ramifications and other risk factors that arise in VTC meetings and virtual meet-ups will help ensure that there are fewer unpleasant surprises along the way, writes Simon Portman of intellectual property law firm Marks & Clerk

As soon as the sun comes out, there is a general stampede as victims of lockdown defy government requirements or guidelines to congregate outside in droves. It is therefore safe to assume that the current enforced practice of remote working and virtual interaction will, up to a point, be dispensed with once normality returns. Remote working and virtual interaction do, however, have obvious benefits which mean that they are here to stay and the coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis, while doing unprecedented damage to some sectors, has proved a shot in the arm for virtual teleconferencing (VTC) and facilities for virtual meet-ups.

HTC’s investment in Engage and the explosion in Zoom’s revenue are testament to this. Meeting and collaborating remotely save time and money in terms of travel and accommodation, and there is no infection risk.

As everyone knows, however, problems have come to light.

Zoom was forced to introduce a higher level of security after calls were crashed, maliciously put online or listened in on covertly.

It has been known for Zoom calls to have been accidentally crashed because someone used the wrong meeting ID number. From now on, users should really be using PIN or password protection, ideally something a bit more imaginative than 0000 or 1234.

VTC meetings also give rise to privacy, confidentiality and copyright issues. Companies taking a licence to one of these facilities should read the terms of use carefully.

Recordings will be stored by default on the licensor’s systems and could therefore end up in unauthorised hands if there is a security breach. Using the product may also open the user up to targeted marketing and data tracking.

For example, Spatial’s terms allow third-party advertising partners to set tracking tools to collect information about user activities and devices.

Glue, on the other hand, located in the EU and therefore obliged to comply with data protection legislation mandated by GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), restricts itself more tightly.

Its terms provide that all data and materials that the customer generates in or submits to Glue, including business information, presentations and documentation, will be owned by the customer, except general and anonymous usage, statistical and aggregate data pertaining to the customer’s or its users’ use of Glue (including anonymous analysis of the customer materials).

Licence terms will also generally oblige users to comply with privacy, confidentiality and copyright requirements in applicable jurisdictions.

This can be a challenge because the rules may differ from country to country but virtual meetings and collaborations may involve participants from various territories. Different (and sometimes inconsistent) legal frameworks may therefore come into play.

The best approach to take in VTC meetings and other virtual meet-ups is as follows:

• Do not make recordings without all users’ consent.

• Agree who (if anyone) is permitted to make a recording, whether they can edit it and whom it may be made available to. As a result of the pandemic, a plethora of video- and audio-based marketing collateral is suddenly out there (this author and his employer are as guilty as any).

• This issue is likely to be less sensitive for a presentation, webinar or podcast than for a confidential meeting but, if one party assumes that a presentation may only be made available to participating organisations and the other assumes it can be uploaded for general consumption, problems will clearly occur. Everybody needs to be on the same page.

• Do not capture or disseminate screen grabs without all participants’ being in agreement.

• If a session is recorded, all participants should be judicious in what they say. Even if the meeting is meant to be confidential, one never knows where it is going to end up. This author once spoke on a panel supposedly under the Chatham House Rule, only to find that everything everybody had said had been broadcast via Twitter. Where confidential information is concerned, the rule of thumb should always be to never disclose more than you absolutely have to anyway.

Some users of video conferencing, even if not familiar with the legal and technical landscape, are clearly aware of the privacy issues in practical terms. Many people disable their camera, use a virtual background or occasionally even cover the personal effects behind them with a sheet.

Whether they are worried that they may be showing they have something worth stealing, or whether they are embarrassed to betray the fact that they have nothing worth stealing, is unclear.

VR meeting and collaboration facilities address many concerns about virtual meet-ups.

If participants can congregate in a virtual environment using avatars, it doesn’t really matter what their houses look like or whether they are suffering from lockdown grooming or a shortage of hair dye.

However, these innovations bring their own challenges. Off-the-shelf avatars may be the property of the licensor, but users will doubtless wish to assert their copyright and image rights in personalised ones, particularly when photorealistic ones can be generated. This time is not far off and this issue will need to be expressly addressed in licence terms from now on.

Another pitfall from VR collaborations lies in their immersion.

Virtual meetings don’t just comprise a collection of avatars sitting round a table in an exotic, digital setting. 3D models can be generated, adapted and interacted with, leading to greatly enhanced progress in product design, whether it be of chemical compounds, furniture, vehicles or buildings.

A recent example of this was the VentilatorChallengeUK consortium, which saw leading engineering companies including Ford, Siemens and Airbus use PTC’s Vuforia Expert Capture AR technology and Microsoft’s HoloLens to capture the key assembly steps and processes involved in building rapidly manufactured ventilator systems.

This immersion can lead to a huge amount of innovation and creativity as everybody dives into the virtual sandbox. However, in their enthusiasm they should not forget that they are engaged in a project just as formal as any laboratory or office-based activity.

Who is responsible for doing what, what happens if they don’t do it, licensing and non-disclosure obligations, and who has what ownership and exploitation rights over the project—results still need to be enshrined in a properly drafted collaboration agreement so that there is no ambiguity or scope for a dispute further down the line.

Interaction using immersive tech will only increase but, as with the application of XR in regulated fields such as healthcare and education, anticipating and accommodating the legal ramifications and other risk factors will help ensure that there are fewer unpleasant surprises along the way.

About the author
Simon Portman is a commercial contract and non-contentious IP lawyer and heads up Marks & Clerk’s Extended Reality team

Simon Portman is a commercial contract and non-contentious IP lawyer and heads up Marks & Clerk’s Extended Reality team. He advises on the development and exploitation of VR and AR technology, including hardware, software and content, across all sectors including healthcare, training, product design and entertainment. He has also advised on the sale of UK computer game companies to big multinationals. To find out more, visit the Marks & Clerk website or LinkedIn page, or contact Simon via, or connect with him on LinkedIn.

Image credits: Engage, Spatial and Glue