Can NO FAKES be for Real?

This week, I’m taking a break from talking about court cases and instead focusing on a draft bill aimed at creating a federal right of publicity that was introduced in October by a bipartisan group of Senators. A quick refresher: the right of publicity allows an individual to control the use of their voice, and laws or cases governing this right exist in about two-thirds of the states.  

Now, with generative AI and “deepfake” technology, celebrities and entertainment companies are pushing for greater protection against the creation of unauthorized digital replicas of a person’s image, voice, or visual likeness. And the Senate, it appears, is responding, raising concerns among digital rights groups and others about First Amendment rights and limits on creative freedom. 

Before diving into the specifics of the bill and its potential implications, I want to step back and talk about the underlying reasons for intellectual property laws. These laws are the subject of entire law school classes (I took several of them), but I can quickly summarize two fundamental reasons why they exist. The first is to encourage artistic works and inventions, an idea that can be found in the U.S. Constitution. The idea is that allowing creators (in the case of copyright law) and inventors (in the case of patent law) to exclusively reap the economic benefits of their work will incentivize people to make art and invent useful things. Notably, both copyrights and patents are in effect for a limited amount of time: for patents, 20 years from the date of the application, while copyrights run for the life of the creator plus 70 years (note that length; it’s going to come up again). 

The second reason is to prevent consumer confusion. This is the central concern of trademark and unfair competition laws, which are intended to ensure that no one other than the company associated with a particular good or service is selling that good or service. 

The idea behind the right of publicity (you can read more about it in the context of generative AI here), includes a dash of both of these rationales. It ensures that individuals can profit from their investment in their persona by preventing others from using their name, likeness, voice, etc., without their permission. It also prevents brands from claiming someone endorsed a product without that person’s consent. 

With generative AI and the ease with which anyone can now create a digital replica of a celebrity to endorse a product or perform a song, artists and entertainment companies are worried that the current patchwork of state laws isn’t enough. Hence, the Nurture Originals, Foster Art, and Keep Entertainment Safe Act of 2023 or the NO FAKES Act of 2023, which, if enacted, would create a federal right of publicity. (A side question: in hiring staff, do Members of Congress test job applicants’ ability to come up with wacky bill titles that can be made into acronyms? Because this one certainly took some legitimate skill.) 

The bill protects against the creation of an unauthorized “digital replica,” which the NO FAKES Act describes as:  “a newly created, computer-generated, electronic representation of the image, voice, or visual likeness of an individual that is [nearly indistinguishable] from the actual image, voice, or visual likeness of an individual; and is fixed in a sound recording or an audiovisual work in which that individual did not actually perform or appear.”

In other words, NO FAKES bars using a computer to create an audiovisual work or a recording that looks or sounds very much like a real person when that person has not consented. This proposed right bars the creation of a digital replica during a person’s lifetime and for 70 years after death (the same as existing copyright laws). In the case of a dead person, the person or entity that owns the rights to the deceased’s publicity rights (often, the deceased’s heirs) would have to consent to the creation of a digital replica. 

If NO FAKES is passed, anyone who creates an unauthorized digital replica can be sued by the person who controls the rights; the rights holder can also sue anyone, like a website or streaming platform, who knowingly publishes, distributes, or transmits a digital replica without consent. This is true even if the work includes a disclaimer stating the work is unauthorized. 

That said, the Act as currently drafted does include some exceptions intended to protect the First Amendment. For example, NO FAKES states that it is not a violation of the Act to create a digital replica that is used as part of a news broadcast or documentary or for purposes of “comment criticism, scholarship, satire, or parody.”

Some other things to note: 

  • The right to control the creation of a digital replica does not extend to images that are unaccompanied by audio.
  • The draft bill states that the right to control digital replicas “shall be considered to be a law pertaining to intellectual property for the purposes of section 230(e)(2) of the Communications Act of 1934. This means that Internet service providers cannot rely on Section 230 to avoid liability.

Now, it is likely the draft will have undergone significant amendments and revisions if and when it is passed. As mentioned above, digital rights groups and others worry that the right of publicity can be used to litigate against speech protected by the First Amendment, as public figures in the past have tried when they don’t like something that has been said about them in the media. 

To me, the Act seems a bit suspicious. You may notice I’ve stressed how the Act extends protection against digital replicas to 70 years post-mortem, the same exact length as copyright protection. Isn’t this expansiveness a bit much considering the current state of play is no federal right of publicity at all? The extreme length of the proposed protection, coupled with the Act eliminating the use of disclaimers as a shield for liability, suggests NO FAKES is less about protecting the public and more designed to prolong celebrities’ and entertainment companies’ abilities to profit. After all, the right to publicity created in the NO FAKES Act can be sold by an actor or their heirs to a company like, say, a movie studio… that could then, in theory, continue to feature digital replicas of the aged or deceased actor in their films unchallenged for seven decades after death. Thelma and Louise 4: Back From the Abyss is coming, and Brad Pitt won’t look a day over 30. 

Good, perhaps, for Brad Pitt.  The rest of us, maybe not.