By Beth St. Clair
What would you do if someone built a robot version of you?
It happened to Scarlett Johansson. A graphic designer from Hong Kong spent over a year, and $50,000, to build a robot in her likeness. While the robot’s abilities are limited, it can respond to compliments and questions, laugh, bow, and blink its eyes. Most notable, however, is the fact that the designer used 3D-printing technology and silicone to make the robot look exactly like Johansson.
For some, the coquettish machine represents an objectification of women, “an utterly disappointing reflection of the way women are portrayed in society.” For others, it is an extreme example of fandom.
But because the programming and machinery needed to make very advanced robots are now so widely available that a person can create one at her own house, we will see more celeb-bots in the future. Those robots, especially female celebrity-inspired robots equipped with realistic features and the ability to mimic life-like movement, will continue to be controversial.
Why is the Scarlett Johansson robot unnerving? Because it represents a new level of duplication, far more than a video of a celebrity can produce. And, since it is such a holistic “personification” of someone and the attributes that make them who they are, it is very intimate. For many, too intimate.
It also touches on how we feel about our ability to control our image and our likeness. Scarlett Johansson did not consent to the creation of the robot, and some of us intuitively feel that consent should be required in order for another to use our image.
Very little legal precedent covers the building of a robotic version of someone for commercial use (other than “Cliff and Norm” from the sitcom Cheers’ fight against Paramount’s attempt to build talking robots in their likeness.) Effective recourse would probably borrow arguments from established tort and IP law that covers personality rights, including concepts from the Right to Publicity.
A Right to Publicity claim arises under state law. The strength of a claim heavily depends on the jurisdiction in which it is made, as the availability and scope of the right varies wildly from state to state. Attempting to pursue and then enforce a claim with international reach, as in Johansson’s case, could prove to be difficult.
A claim’s viability also depends on what the inventor plans to do with the robot, particularly if he intends it for commercial gain, rather than personal or private use. The item or image in question would also have to have sufficient “indicia of identity” of the plaintiff; in other words, a sufficient likeness.
In addition, the status of the roboticized person could make a difference. In Scarlett Johansson’s case, her celebrity status would bolster her claim because it makes her image more commercially valuable identity. In some states, such as Washington State, a plaintiff identity-holder does not have to be a celebrity to bring a claim, but the protections afforded by the Right will be more limited.
Meanwhile, “celebrity androids” are becoming more common in the advertising industry. Matsuko Deluxe, a popular TV host in Japan, has an android version of himself named Matsuko-Roid that occasionally stands in for him during his show. Matsuko-Roid even hosted a talk at the Cannes Lion International Festival of Creativity.
This raises the question of when robots as celebrities in their own rights will become commonplace. As it stands right now, only a short list of famous robots comes to mind, such as Johnny 5 of Short Circuit fame; Rosie, the live-in robot housekeeper from The Jetsons; the Terminator; and R2D2 and C-3PO of Star Wars.
But in twenty years, well-known robots will be too numerous to list. The creators of those robots will want to jealously guard the personality rights incarnate in them. But will the Right of Publicity extend to robots, particularly because the Right is born out of concepts of the Right to Privacy, which were traditionally meant to protect a person’s dignity? In other words, do robots have dignity to protect? Or will the commercial aspects of the Right trump any leftover moral underpinnings?