AI sticking point for writers, actors in studio


Artificial intelligence is a sticking point in the months-long Writers Guild of America strike. It’s also among actors’ concerns cited in ongoing negotiations with Hollywood studios.

Always-prescient “Black Mirror” tackles these fears in the first episode of its new season.

The Season 6 premiere follows tech executive Joan (Annie Murphy), who is horrified to discover that streaming platform Streamberry — a thinly veiled parody of Netflix — has released a prestige drama called “Joan Is Awful,” which not only parallels her own life, but uses AI to generate content by surveilling her through her phone. After a sympathetic lawyer (Lolly Adefope) explains that Joan unknowingly consented to this by accepting the platform’s terms and conditions, she resorts to increasingly unhinged behavior in an attempt to shut it down.

While the episode’s premise that AI can create layered realities leans toward science fiction, SAG-AFTRA anticipates that Joan’s reality is closer than we think.

“Imagine waking up to find you are the face of a new advertising campaign — and it’s a product you don’t want to be associated with,” an August 2022 statement from the union reads. “As technology has evolved, artificial intelligence-powered software has made it possible to create realistic audiovisual, video and audio content known as ‘deepfakes.’ It makes the above scenario not only possible, but a real threat to those who sign broadly written non-union contracts that allow for unfettered use of a performer’s image or voice.”

AI’s ability to generate video lags significantly behind its audio and text capacities, said Ryan Schmidt, a partner at Bowen Law Group, so it will likely be a while before AI can produce anything as complex and realistic as “Joan Is Awful.”

“But there’s every reason to think it can get there,” Schmidt said, and the law is already running behind.

Lawsuits related to AI are often settled quickly — leaving the courts unable to establish legal precedent.

Left without case law or legal precedent to draw from, lawyers generally apply two classic legal concepts when tackling AI and voice and image rights: the right of publicity and copyright.

The right of publicity prevents the commercial use of an individual’s name, likeness or other recognizable aspects of their persona without their consent, and it is increasingly dominating the dialogue around generative AI as many studios now require performers to grant digital simulation or digital creation rights in their contracts.

Such exploitation is especially prevalent in reality television, said entertainment lawyer Leigh Brecheen, partner at Brecheen, Feldman, Breimer, Silver & Thompson.

“They literally try to own who you are,” Brecheen said.

Under the National Labor Relations Act, companies are required to bargain with SAG-AFTRA before attempting to acquire these rights in performers’ contracts, the guild said in a March 23 statement about simulated performances.

In many cases, Schmidt said, preexisting contracts are being “reinterpreted and stretched probably beyond everybody’s original intention” because of their overly broad nature.

“That’s really the basis for the things that we’re seeing with both WGA and SAG-AFTRA,” Schmidt said. “We’re at this Napster 2001 moment where the music industry was, where we can either create really clear, fair standards, or we can kind of let it go wild. … It’s one thing if somebody wants to [use AI] to make a silly TikTok video, but it’s another thing if a film studio wants to do it and displace thousands of crew members’ jobs.”

From 1999 to 2002, file-sharing service Napster faced off against a slew of record labels and big-name artists like Metallica, who accused Napster of illegally distributing copyrighted material. Snowballing legal costs and mass resignations led Napster to file for bankruptcy in June 2002.

Now, with AI in the equation, the concept of ownership has become convoluted.

AI filters recently popularized on TikTok, for example, pose danger to an individual’s right to their own likeness, Yates said. When someone inputs their likeness into an AI-powered image generator, that input and the resultant image are now in the public domain and free to use, by anyone, for any purpose . The new image is not protected by copyright law.

With Big Tech shirking responsibility for reining in irresponsible and illegal use of AI, Yates says violations are only getting more prevalent and it’s inevitable many will go to trial. He’s just not certain when that might happen.

The guild has called for the new labor contract to include terms regulating when AI can be used, for how much money and how studios will protect against misuse.

Brecheen said she is optimistic that the guild will be able to sort out financial issues such as compensation for use of image and likeness, and residual rights. However, she also said the guild may have to be more modest about what limitations it can place on AI.

SAG-AFTRA’s chief negotiator, Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, has promoted a “human-centered” approach to AI, saying the industry should not ban AI entirely but use it to guild members’ benefit.

If regulated properly, AI could revolutionize the entertainment industry. Actors could increase profit opportunities by licensing their likeness, productions could employ more special effects at a lower cost, and studios could automate pre-production and post-production tasks.

If left unchecked, though, it could put thousands out of a job — and leave the industry void of the human touch.

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