Creators have reason to be wary of the generative AI future. For one thing, while GenAI can be a valuable tool for creativity, it may also be used to deceive the public and disrupt existing markets for creative labor. Performers, in particular, worry that AI-generated images and music will become deceptive substitutes for human models, actors, or musicians.
Existing laws offer multiple ways for performers to address this issue. In the U.S., a majority of states recognize a “right of publicity,” meaning, the right to control if and how your likeness is used for commercial purposes. A limited version of this right makes sense—you should be able to prevent a company from running an advertisement that falsely claims that you endorse its products—but the right of publicity has expanded well beyond its original boundaries, to potentially cover just about any speech that “evokes” a person’s identity.
In addition, every state prohibits defamation, harmful false representations, and unfair competition, though the parameters may vary. These laws provide time-tested methods to mitigate economic and emotional harms from identity misuse while protecting online expression rights.
But some performers want more. They argue that your right to control use of your image shouldn’t vary depending on what state you live in. They’d also like to be able to go after the companies that offer generative AI tools and/or host AI-generated “deceptive” content. Ordinary liability rules, including copyright, can’t be used against a company that has simply provided a tool for others’ expression. After all, we don’t hold Adobe liable when someone uses Photoshop to suggest that a president can’t read or even for more serious deceptions. And Section 230 immunizes intermediaries from liability for defamatory content posted by users and, in some parts of the country, publicity rights violations as well. Again, that’s a feature, not a bug; immunity means it’s easier to stick up for users’ speech, rather than taking down or preemptively blocking any user-generated content that might lead to litigation. It’s a crucial protection not just big players like Facebook and YouTube, but also small sites, news outlets, emails hosts, libraries, and many others.
Balancing these competing interests won’t be easy. Sadly, so far Congress isn’t trying very hard. Instead, it’s proposing “fixes” that will only create new problems.
Last fall, several Senators circulated a “discussion draft” bill, the NO FAKES Act. Professor Jennifer Rothman has an excellent analysis of the bill, including its most dangerous aspect: creating a new, and transferable, federal publicity right that would extend for 70 years past the death of the person whose image is purportedly replicated. As Rothman notes, under the law:
record companies get (and can enforce) rights to performers’ digital replicas, not just the performers themselves. This opens the door for record labels to cheaply create AI-generated performances, including by dead celebrities, and exploit this lucrative option over more costly performances by living humans, as discussed above.
In other words, if we’re trying to protect performers in the long run, just make it easier for record labels (for example) to acquire voice rights that they can use to avoid paying human performers for decades to come.
NO FAKES hasn’t gotten much traction so far, in part because the Motion Picture Association hasn’t supported it. But now there’s a new proposal: the “No AI FRAUD Act.” Unfortunately, Congress is still getting it wrong.
First, the Act purports to target abuse of generative AI to misappropriate a person’s image or voice, but the right it creates applies to an incredibly broad amount of digital content: any “likeness” and/or “voice replica” that is created or altered using digital technology, software, an algorithm, etc. There’s not much that wouldn’t fall into that category—from pictures of your kid, to recordings of political events, to docudramas, parodies, political cartoons, and more. If it involved recording or portraying a human, it’s probably covered. Even more absurdly, it characterizes any tool that has a primary purpose of producing digital depictions of particular people as a “personalized cloning service.” Our iPhones are many things, but even Tim Cook would likely be surprised to know he’s selling a “cloning service.”
Second, it characterizes the new right as a form of federal intellectual property. This linguistic flourish has the practical effect of putting intermediaries that host AI-generated content squarely in the litigation crosshairs. Section 230 immunity does not apply to federal IP claims, so performers (and anyone else who falls under the statute) will have free rein to sue anyone that hosts or transmits AI-generated content.
That, in turn, is bad news for almost everyone—including performers. If this law were enacted, all kinds of platforms and services could very well fear reprisal simply for hosting images or depictions of people—or any of the rest of the broad types of “likenesses” this law covers. Keep in mind that many of these service won’t be in a good position to know whether AI was involved in the generation of a video clip, song, etc., nor will they have the resources to pay lawyers to fight back against improper claims. The best way for them to avoid that liability would be to aggressively filter user-generated content, or refuse to support it at all.
Third, while the term of the new right is limited to ten years after death (still quite a long time), it’s combined with very confusing language suggesting that the right could extend well beyond that date if the heirs so choose. Notably, the legislation doesn’t preempt existing state publicity rights laws, so the terms could vary even more wildly depending on where the individual (or their heirs) reside.
Lastly, while the defenders of the bill incorrectly claim it will protect free expression, the text of the bill suggests otherwise. True, the bill recognizes a “First Amendment defense.” But every law that affects speech is limited by the First Amendment—that’s how the Constitution works. And the bill actually tries to limit those important First Amendment protections by requiring courts to balance any First Amendment interests “against the intellectual property interest in the voice or likeness.” That balancing test must consider whether the use is commercial, necessary for a “primary expressive purpose,” and harms the individual’s licensing market. This seems to be an effort to import a cramped version of copyright’s fair use doctrine as a substitute for the rigorous scrutiny and analysis the First Amendment (and even the Copyright Act) requires.
We could go on, and we will if Congress decides to take this bill seriously. But it shouldn’t. If Congress really wants to protect performers and ordinary people from deceptive or exploitative uses of their images and voice, it should take a precise, careful and practical approach that avoids potential collateral damage to free expression, competition, and innovation. The No AI FRAUD Act comes nowhere near the mark