The Kölner Dom Cathedral in Cologne, Germany has survived war, plague, and decay. Built in the 12th Century, it was the only major building in the city to survive the Allied carpet bombing in World War II. But the cathedral and its caretakers now stand against new invaders: hordes of Pokemon Go players.
Last month, the cathedral announced that it had hired an attorney to press its case against the game’s creators for failing to heed requests to remove the “Pokestop” waypoints that draw gamers in. The priests complain that “players have been traipsing through, interrupting prayer and disturbing the respectful calm of the ancient cathedral.” Several public institutions have been widely quoted in the media discouraging people from using the game on their grounds, including Arlington National Cemetary and the National Holocaust Museum, but the Cologne Cathedral maybe the first to take formal legal action.
They are unlikely to be the last frustrated landowners to consider that option. Closer to (my) home, for example, residents of St. Clair Shores, Michigan are up in arms about the players roaming through nearby Wahby Park. Local police have ticketed some players for trespassing, since the park technically closes to visitors at dusk, but the problems have apparently continued. One local resident complained that “the past few weeks (since the game came out) have been an absolute nightmare for the residents on our street. Our once quiet, safe, and peaceful street has gone to the complete opposite. There has to be almost a dozen Poke Stops, and roughly 5 Gyms in this park. At any given moment there are at least a couple of hundred people in the park play this game, compared to the average of usually 15-20 in the park. The Poke Stops, and Gyms border the park which is an open invitation for the players to utilize our street, our lawns, looking in our windows and so forth.”
Elaborating further, the resident emphasized the following issues:
“Privacy: Since our street borders the park, our privacy has been taken away from us. The stops/gyms border directly on our street, causing the gamers to take over our property as well as the parks. They are on our lawns, with the newest being looking right into our windows. How is this acceptable? They hang out on our lawns, trample landscaping, look in vehicles, hang out in the middle of the street looking at our homes while playing their game, so I hope. We ask them to leave but 75% percent of the time, they ignore us or call us names. They do this to our older residents on our street, which is just unacceptable. We have never had an issue before like this.
Safety: Along with our privacy being violated, our safety is a concern too. Our street is narrow, we have elderly, and special needs children that require a lot of care. It is not uncommon for an ambulance go down the street frequently. It is not safe for cars to be blocking emergency vehicles to get down the street to assist people that need care. We don’t feel safe having people on our property looking into our home. Nor do we feel safe with random vehicles parking, driving slow, and hanging out on our street. We don’t know who is playing the game, who is looking at our homes to break in or steal, who is a pedophile or rapist. I don’t feel safe sitting on our porch, something we love to do. We have gotten heckled and yelled at for calling the police and we didn’t ever do so. I have been threatened because I asked someone to leave.
Traffic control: We are a private street, with that being said the police cannot ticket or have vehicles removed. All day is constant traffic, either parking on the street or just driving real slow to catch the Pokemon, or just stop right in the middle of the street. When we ask these unwanted guests to leave, we are threatened, they don’t listen, give attitude, and leave when they want, this goes on all night. Blocking driveways, parking on the wrong side of the street, sitting in driveways, you name it they are doing it. I thought Pokemon Go was an active game that encourages exercise?
Look at the traffic in the park, even after park hours. The parking lot is full to the max, along with an ice cream man in a truck selling ice cream. They scatter when it is time to leave, hiding on our street or in the bushes, then come right back once police leave.”
Nothing inherent to the game encourages or condones players who behave this way. To the contrary, the app has always warned players to be mindful of their surroundings, and the most recently updated version of the game includes new warnings each time it opens up, including “Do not trespass while playing Pokémon Go,” “Do not play Pokémon Go while driving,” and “Do not enter dangerous areas while playing Pokémon Go.” One can also expect the intensity of these issues to fade over time. Because this type of gameplay is new to most of those who are now playing the game, however, both players and society as a whole are going to have some growing pains as they sort out where the lines of acceptable gaming behavior are going to be.
Meanwhile, the game’s creators appear to be doing what they can to oil the squeaky wheels who have complained the loudest about offensive Pokestops. There has always been a process for submitting requests to remove content, and recent reports suggest that the creators are redoubling their efforts to cooperate. Already I have spoken to local players who have noticed certain Pokestops disappear.
Upset residents may encounter some unexpected hurdles in actually forcing content to be removed through the legal system. For example, not only are Pokestop locations user-submitted (and thus potentially insulated by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act), but there are likely to be factual difficulties in proving a causal connection between digital data and certain real-world troubles. Plaintiffs will also have the creators’ First Amendment rights of expression to deal with.
The specifics of how any particular dispute arises, and how it gets resolved, however, remain to be seen.
Want to hear more discussion of Pokemon Go-related legal issues? Catch my interview on an upcoming episode of the Lawyer 2 Lawyer podcast.