Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Who Owns the Owners?

This Audrey Hepburn chocolate bar commercial freaks me out. Not because of the ghastly-but-honestly-impressive effects work. Well done, you hideous ghouls.

No, what freaks me out is the whole idea of owning oneself. I can see where this is going, and it's kind of terrifying.

Owning stuff is a pretty basic idea. A 2-year-old readily divides the world into stuff that is "his" and stuff that isn't and woe betide you should you cross that divide. But the definition of "stuff" is steadily getting less clear.

Who owns a book? The person holding it, presumably -- oh wait, that's just the owner of that copy of that book. The right to make those copies -- the copyright -- is owned by, uh, whoever owns it. Most likely an enormous corporation (hang on to that idea, it's going to go somewhere).

Owning a copyright is a little abstract, to be sure, but it's a defensible idea. This commercial takes the question of what can be owned to an even stranger level.

It is said the ad was created with the approval of her sons, which begs the question of whether or not such approval was or even should be required, and what the implications on either side of that question are.

I know it's Audrey, but it doesn't
LOOK like Audrey
To the left, if approval is required, that implies that a person's appearance -- their face, their style, their presence -- is a thing that like the right to make copies, like a book, can be owned. This is a very strange idea. Your presence -- do you own it? And if you do, then, can you sell it? Can someone buy it? Can someone take it away from you? What do we do with identical twins, or two people who just happen to look very much alike? How alike will be considered "too alike"? What if I create a recognizable caricature of Audrey Hepburn -- does that require permission, too? Can I sue someone for looking too much like me (poor devil)?

When does this sort of ownership expire? Or can I pass the rights to my likeness along to my heirs and let them profit from it for all eternity? And what are the chances that these rights (whatever they are) will end up in the hands of an enormous, soulless corporation that will ruthlessly exploit them until they're worthless?

See, I told you that idea would come back. The answer to that last question is very close to "100%", by the way.

To the right, if approval is not required, then does that mean that anyone can create a photorealistic version of YOU and have it do whatever they desire? What recourse do you have, if they never use your name and the entire scene is completely fictional? How will you prove you DIDN'T do the things you are shown to be doing?

This isn't quite like slander or libel -- perhaps it is if I am made to look like I've done something impugning my reputation, but even showing me do innocuous things that I didn't do seems to tread on my rights, and it's not like tracking down the producers of random YouTube videos is necessarily going to be straightforward.

Both sides appear deeply flawed to me. Both lead to bizarre and unsettling worlds. Either we enter a marketplace of identities, where the battle to maintain ownership over my own appearance is going to be a very lopsided one in favour of massive inhuman entities (those corporations, in case you aren't keeping up), or I abandon any hope of being able to preserve my own reputation.

I'm not trying to say that my appearance is ever going to be as valuable as a movie star's -- that's not the point. But just as the notion of copyright ownership has now become an everyday problem for ordinary people everywhere, this sort of idea of "self" ownership may do likewise.

Who owns me? How is that ownership structured, and what rights to myself do I have within that structure?