Judge Blocks Law That Imposed Restrictions on AR Game Makers

While the Pokémon Go craze has faded from many peoples’ memories, a ruling on a lawsuit brought by a company that makes similar games against a Wisconsin county could have significant implications for augmented reality application developers.

On Thursday, U.S. District judge J.P Stadtmueller issued a preliminary injunction that prevents Milwaukee County from enforcing an ordinance requiring augmented reality (AR) game developers to obtain permits if their games lead users to county parks to collect virtual prizes there, according to a report by the technology news website Ars Technica.

Irvine, CA-based Candy Lab AR, the game studio behind Texas Rope ’Em and other AR titles for mobile devices, sued Milwaukee County in April. AR technology is aimed in part at overlaying a virtual world atop buildings, roads, parks, and other things in the familiar physical world. Texas Rope ’Em, which is being tested in Milwaukee and other cities, uses the GPS capabilities of players’ mobile devices to guide them to various locations. There, they collect playing cards in order to assemble the best possible poker hand. Pokémon Go is similar: look at the screen of your smartphone or tablet, locate characters you want to “catch,” and go to them.

Pokémon Go became an instant sensation after it was introduced last summer, but not everyone was a fan of the increased foot traffic it brought to certain city landmarks. At a county board meeting in January, people who lived near Lake Park in Milwaukee complained of trash and damage to plants and landscaping wrought by Pokémon Go players, according to Milwaukee Record.

Milwaukee County adopted an ordinance in February requiring any developer of an AR game that takes users to county parks to obtain a special permit, according to the Ars Technica report. When it passed, the law was believed to be the first of its kind in the country. Game makers are reportedly required to pay up to $1,000 for a permit, which would cover all parks in the county. When applying for permits, developers also must estimate how large crowds will be, and when they’re likely to be present.

In April, Candy Lab challenged the law on First Amendment grounds, arguing that it “amounted to a prior restraint of a game maker’s speech,” according to Ars Technica.

In his ruling issued Thursday, Stadtmueller wrote of the ordinance’s “strangeness and lack of sophistication.” Leading players to a park as part of an AR application’s gameplay shouldn’t subject the companies that develop these apps to act as if they are holding pre-scheduled events at parks, the judge wrote.

“The Ordinance treats game developers like Candy Lab as though they are trying [to] hold an ‘event’ in a Milwaukee County park,” according to a copy of Stadtmueller’s opinion posted by The Hollywood Reporter. “However, this misunderstands the nature of the problem, since Candy Lab’s video game will not be played at a discrete time or location within a park.”

According to Ars Technica, Stadtmueller’s preliminary injunction bars Milwaukee County from enforcing the ordinance until a trial, tentatively set for next spring, is complete.

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