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Should Landlords Be Concerned About Digital Graffiti?

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Everyone is familiar with property graffiti. It’s been around since the Roman Empire, after all. Graffiti can be art, but it can also be explicit, damaging, and unsightly. It’s no surprise that property managers struggle to keep it off their buildings. It’s a struggle that costs $12 billion across the country a year. And as if that wasn’t hard enough, managers and landlords have another challenge to get their heads around: the advent of virtual signage. 

More and more technologies are being created that blend the physical and the digital world. One of those is augmented reality (AR). Initially unlocked by ubiquitous mobile phones, augmented reality games and applications display digital content layered over the real world. Games like Pokemon Go are just the tip of the iceberg and only the earliest of indications of where this field is going. We are on the verge of an augmented reality renaissance. With tech giants Facebook and Apple working on their own sets of augmented reality glasses, soon you won’t have to peer through your phone’s screen to see a digitally augmented world. While the details of these devices are still unclear, when these spectacles release in 2021 and 2022, respectively, we will likely be able to see a range of virtual content layered over what we are seeing in real life, without ever picking up our phones. 

This technology has a huge amount of potential, from displaying maps and social media in the corner of your field of vision to revolutionizing Zoom calls. It also has a wide range of advertising applications. Cookies already let advertisers show you the ads they want you to see on your computer. In a year or two, these ads might be displayed layered over the bus stop, the back of the headrest in your Uber ride, or the blank side of the podium at the office building down the street. 

The brand-new augmented reality world might manifest in a few different ways. We might wind up with a scenario where the companies that operate augmented reality infrastructure sell advertising just like search engines and social media do today. This comes with all sorts of risks and challenges of its own. For example, what if a competitor building advertises on a digital space located on your property? What if a brand that is out of sync with your values advertises on your property? If programs allow users to post comments and pictures layered over the world, advertisements might be the most harmless of the digital visuals.

If that thought didn’t send shivers down your spine, you haven’t been listening. Are you ready to accept Reddit-style virtual posts plastered up and down the sides of your very real, very physical building? This emergent risk is something that Mark Zettl, JLL’s President of Property Management, is tracking. “You need to be forward-thinking about this kind of virtual marketing, and monetize and protect it so people aren’t utilizing it without your consent,” he said. Unfortunately, it isn’t clear what sort of legislation might pass to protect the digital real estate of physical assets.

According to Robyn Chatwood, a lawyer and head of Dentons’ technology practice in Australia, “Owners of landmark buildings might want to own those rights, but today they can’t control who presents information about their buildings in an augmented-reality application.” 

Then there is advertising for other products and services. “What happens,” Zettl asked, “if you have one leaseholder in your building, and a competing one across the street?” You certainly don’t want competing ads overlaid onto your property, at least not if you are not getting paid for it. 

Without clarity on the legal system surrounding this sort of property rights, landlords might be on their own for the time being. In the early days of our augmented reality world, the best thing many landlords might be able to do is to pay attention to what virtual signage is going up around their property, so that they will have the chance to identify and hopefully stop the perpetrators themselves. One way to solve this hypothetical problem might be for property managers, or their tenants, to buy up all the virtual ad space on their properties themselves. While it might seem extortionary, we are entering the Wild West of augmented reality laws, and claim-staking might be just what is needed for the situation. 

Perhaps laws will eventually get passed to tie ownership of virtual space to ownership of physical space. On the other hand, we might also see a new horizon of property ownership open up, where digital Non-Fungible Tokens, or NFTs, control the ownership of both physical and virtual domains of real estate. In what is seeming to be an increasingly familiar trend, real estate owners are butting up against rapidly transforming digital frontiers. This one just happens to be a little bit closer to home. For Zettl, these questions are already here, not off in the future. “Some component of smart eyewear, that is the future, in my mind,” he said. Graffiti is an ancient phenomenon, one that could use the gray area around augmented reality to cause even more pain to the modern landlord.

Associate Publisher, Propmodo Research
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