DEEPFAKE – Who Owns The Rights?

During Christmas 2020 Channel 4 broadcast an alternative version of the Queen’s Christmas message. It showed the Queen acting out of character for our Monarch, even doing a ‘disco’ dance.

This was in fact an actress doing an impersonation of the Queen’s voice with the actor’s body being replaced with a computer generated avatar of the Queen. The producers made it quite clear that it was ‘Deepfake’ but what it demonstrated was that images of well known people could be manipulated and portrayed in the media in a convincing way such as to influence and confuse the audience.

More recently millions of viewers to the South Korean TV channel MBN witnessed a famous female newsreader, Kim Joo-Ha, replaced by a Deepfake representation of her reading the day’s main news headlines. It perfectly copied her voice, gestures and facial expressions. Fortunately, viewers of the broadcast were informed beforehand that this was going to happen, and South Korean TV reported a mixed response after people had seen it. Many viewers remarked on how lifelike the CGI images were and how realistic the news bulletin was and expressed concern that Kim Joo-Ha might lose her job at the station and be replaced by AI. It begs the question, can you really believe what you see and hear on news bulletins. What if Governments were to use deepfake to manipulate elections or news reports? In fact this was used to some degree by President Trump to make the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, look as if she was drunk and slurring her words during a TV press Conference in an attempt to discredit her. The incentive to use deepfakes to injure political opponents is great. The concept of deepfakes being used politically isn’t farfetched, in fact it could already be the case that deepfakes may have been widely used for propaganda purposes.

On 5th March 2019, footage of a sketch featuring Jimmy Fallon on NBC’s ‘Tonight Show’ dressed in a blond wig impersonating Donald Trump and Dion Flynn playing Barack Obama was posted on the YouTube channel ‘Deepfakes’ under the title ‘The Presidents’. The first half of the clip shows 10 seconds of the sketch as it was originally broadcast by NBC. Then the footage is replayed, except the faces of Fallon and Flynn have been transformed seemingly into the real Trump and Obama, delivering exactly the same lines, same voices, but with features rendered almost indistinguishable from those of the presidents and all with perfect lipsync.

The forgery was created by a type of deep machine-learning code that analyses video footage until it is able to algorithmically transpose the ‘skin’ of one human face on to the movements of another almost as if applying a latex mask. This result is known as a deepfake. The CGI used by MBN TV takes that a whole stage further by analysing speech and motion patterns to generate an absolute replica of the person both in sound and vision and motion.

In 2019 a video posted on Instagram, featured Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg boasting that he has “total control of billions of people’s stolen data, all their secrets, their lives, their futures”. The film was part of an art installation, which the artist claimed: “… was an attempt to interrogate the power of these new forms of computational propaganda”. He also stated that it was also designed to test of whether or not Facebook would allow the film to be distributed via its platform even if the content was deemed damaging to the company’s reputation.

Deepfake has already been applied by Hollywood Studios to clone the face of Carrie Fisher, as she had appeared, aged 21, in the original 1977 Star Wars film, in order to transpose her into the 2016 sequel, Rogue One. The result was a clip in which Fisher circa 1977 appears in the 2016 movie created “in the time it takes to watch an episode of The Simpsons”, and using software that will run on any ordinary PC. There are now numerous apps that require just a single photo in order to substitute a Hollywood actor for that of the user.

Deepfake technology has many worrying potential political applications, but has also piqued the interest of the Hollywood Studios providing the film production companies with the ability to resurrect long dead film stars such as James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Heath Ledger or Marlon Brando and to feature them in new movies. Putting aside the ethical questions, there is also the question of Rights. Who actually owns the rights to these virtual performances, is it the studio that produces the movie from a computer algorithm or is it the family estate of the dead actor featuring in the movie? Who has the final say whether the famous star can be depicted in a rather dubious production that they would never have considered being a part of under any circumstances when they were alive? Also, who does the Studio pay for the performance and the repeat performances once the actor’s algorithms are a part of that Studio’s computer database? Does this mean that in the future all Studios will require every actor to agree to be scanned and their algorithms kept in the Studio database enabling any number of future productions to feature classic performances by these actors and for no fee and free of any contractual obligations?


Robert Downey Jr and Tom Holland in Back to the Future

Tom Cruise as Iron Man

Harrison Ford in Solo: A Star Wars Story

Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones





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