The Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), the US actors’ union with 160,000 members has gone on strike mainly over fears that AI will reduce earnings and damage their profession.
New Agreement Needed
One of the Union’s main roles is negotiating terms between actors and the studios, and the last agreement expired on 30 June (and was extended to 12 July), meaning negotiations were needed which have led to a disagreement and the strike. This is the first time the actors and writers have been on strike at the same time since 1960, when Ronald Reagan was president of the Screen Actors Guild.
In addition to negotiating ‘residuals’, the payments performers receive for repeat showings of films or TV shows (which has been complicated by streaming), who owns their likeness if reproduced by AI has now become a serious issue and a major sticking point.
The Screen Actors Guild union’s membership isn’t only actors in film and TV shows, it’s also made up video game performers, radio presenters, models, YouTube influencers, and more, and although the union is in the US, its reach, influence, and acts of solidarity with its members are global, meaning the strike is causing major disruption to the whole industry.
How Could AI Negatively Affect Actors And The Profession?
A recent proposal by The AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers), which represents studio bosses reportedly suggested that background performers could simply be scanned and paid one day’s pay, while their scanned image is then owned by film companies who can use the person’s image or likeness (reproduced with AI) for unlimited projects in the future without the performer’s consent and without compensation. It has been noted that this proposal resembles the plot of an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (a Netflix Sci-Fi series). As the SAG-AFTRA union president Fran Drescher said in a recent press conference, the fear from performers is, “We are all going to be in jeopardy of being replaced by machines.”
The SAG-AFTRA union has many well-known celebrities, many of whom have come out very publicly in support of the strike, for example, Meryl Streep, Charlize Theron, Jamie Lee Curtis, Olivia Wilde, Ewan McGregor, and George Clooney who said that change was required for “our industry to survive”. The fact that SAG-AFTRA has some very famous members is a source of power and leverage in the argument.
Equity In The UK
Comments by Liam Budd, of UK acting union Equity, have shed more light on the extent to which AI could threaten the pay and jobs of actors and performers. Mr Budd recently outlined how AI is being used for automated audiobooks, synthesised voiceover work, digital avatars for corporate videos, and how AI deepfakes are being used in films, all which have led to “fear circulating” amongst the Equity members.
The trade union representing writers for TV, film, theatre, books and video games in the UK, The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain (WGGB) has also expressed concerns about the encroachment of AI, such as:
– AI developers using writers’ work without permission, infringing writers’ copyright.
– AI tools don’t clearly show where AI has been used to create content.
– Increased AI will reduce the number of job opportunities for writers and reduce the level of writers’ pay.
– The contributions made by the creative industry to the UK economy and national identity could be diluted by AI.
That said, on the point about whether AI could replace writers, the WGGB says “AI systems are not yet sophisticated enough to produce works which accurately mimic the standard of writing produced by professional writers” and “the WGGB does not believe that AI will be able to replicate the originality, authenticity, enthusiasm and humanity that professional writers put into their storytelling.” The union does, however, accept that AI systems could be able to mimic writes’ work in the future.
What have The Studios Said?
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers’ union (AMPTP), which represents the studios and their interests, issued a statement highlighting the positive aspects of its proposal such as “historic pay and residual increases, substantially higher caps on pension and health contribution” and saying that “A strike is certainly not the outcome we hoped for as studios cannot operate without the performers that bring our TV shows and films to life.”
With regards to AI and using images and likeness of actors, the AMPTP has said that it has proposed measures to protect actors’ digital likenesses which include securing an actor’s consent to create and use a digital likeness or to digitally alter their performance, and that the use of digital replicas will be restricted to the specific motion picture for which the actor is employed. Also, it says any additional use would require that actor’s consent and further negotiation.
What Does The Strike Mean For The Entertainment Industry?
In summary, the results of calling the strike means:
– All production under the SAG-AFTRA TV and film contract being halted immediately, thereby bringing projects to a standstill both in the U.S. and around the globe.
– In the UK, with solidarity from the Equity union (and those who have joint cards), many members will stop work and be reluctant to accept work that would have been offered to striking colleagues. Also, co-productions of films and TV shows (US/UK) will be put on hold.
– Actors will no longer be able to promote shows and films they have already made, and this will extend to use of social media for promotion.
– Chat shows may be short of high-profile celebrities for the time being.
Ownership of Likeness
Ways in which famous actors normally protect their image in likeness, in addition to protection offered by union deals, can include:
– Right of Publicity – the main legal doctrine that celebrities use to control the commercial use of their name, image, voice, or persona.
– Trademark Law – registering their name, image, or signature as trademarks.
– Contract Law – when entering contracts with studios or other entities, actors may have contracts often include detailed provisions about how and when their image can be used.
– Copyright Law – to protect creative works that feature a person’s image.
– Defamation Law – to stop someone falsely uses a celebrity’s image in a way that harms their reputation.
– Privacy Law – used (in some jurisdictions) to protect against intrusive or misleading uses of a person’s image.
However, the rapid evolution of AI and AI tools has led to a blurring of the lines around ownership. For example, when an AI image generator like DALL-E has a likeness added to it to make an image, the new image is in public domain, free to use by anyone, and not protected by copyright law.
This, and the many arguments of the acting and writers’ unions point to the need for new regulations that address these many evolving issues.
What Does This Mean For Your Business?
The actors argue that AI gives studios the chance to slash costs and are clearly afraid that AI could be used replace them and their skills, could reduce pay, could lead to fewer acting jobs and job losses, could damage their industry, and devalue their profession and status. They also argue that there are serious issues to be addressed around the use of image and likeness and over matters of consent for the use of these and ownership. For the studios, film and program makers, plus their customers, the strike is likely to be costly, disruptive and damaging. Unfortunately, although AI can be used to help enhance film and programme making, the nature of the business lends itself well to automation. For example, actors images, voices and places can all be easily copied by AI tools (although still not perfectly), and generative AI tools can even be used to write scripts (albeit poorly according to Charlie Brooker, writer of Black Mirror). Of course, this is all part of negotiation between unions and studios that also covers other matters, e.g. the effects of streaming. However, it highlights much of the fear around AI and what many see as the alarming pace of development and the need for new regulation to keep up, how automation by AI could destroy jobs and for some, and even how AI could pose a threat to humanity itself.
It also highlights how generative AI tools are blurring hitherto clearer legal boundaries and how quickly AI can disrupt businesses and industries creating both opportunities and threats for those in them. Many will watch with interest how the dispute unfolds and how similar issues will affect/are affecting related industries going forward e.g., music and art.