SAG-AFTRA Fights for AI Regulation to Protect the Soul of Entertainment (Guest Column)

Even if you don’t work in the film and television industry, odds are you know there’s trouble brewing in Hollywood. You’ve probably heard about the Writers Guild strike and maybe you also know that SAG-AFTRA members voted overwhelmingly to approve a strike authorization, and you might be wondering, “What’s this all about?”

The short answer is that it’s about the viability of making a living and having a career in the entertainment industry. In the quest for ever-greater profits, multimillionaire executives are looking for anywhere they can cut costs. They have raised prices, they have cracked down on password sharing, and now they’re coming for the people who make the shows.

Technology — specifically generative artificial intelligence — certainly isn’t the only issue that threatens the ability of creatives in the industry to make a living, but it casts a long shadow due to the amazing speed at which it is evolving and the troubling implications for its misuse.

This isn’t just about actors — or even writers, directors, or crew — it’s about the soul of entertainment. Audiences aren’t going to want to watch AI-generated shows that lack a human spark for the same reason it’s not interesting to watch two computers play chess. Even now, avid readers could consume an endless number of AI-generated stories from the ChatGPT firehose, and all for free — but who is really engaged by that?

SAG-AFTRA — the union that represents 160,000 members who work in front of a camera and behind a microphone — is no stranger to disruptive technologies. The history of the entertainment industry is one of constant change, and our union has been tracking the rise of AI and other innovations for years, assessing how they might impact our members and the public at large.

What’s important to understand is that SAG-AFTRA is not fighting to ban the use of AI. Whether on screen, in music or video games, or any of the other areas we cover, the technology opens up new creative possibilities, but it cannot come at the expense of people.

Here’s what we are doing to prevent the misuse of generative AI and preserve the human element in the entertainment that America and the world consumes.

● An actor’s brand is their voice and likeness, and SAG-AFTRA has long been working to promote state laws that safeguard a person’s right of publicity so they can’t, for instance, be used to promote a product they didn’t agree to.

● We are also working with lawmakers on legislation to protect voice and likeness on a federal level, specifically in expressive works. The aim is to prevent people’s voices and images from being simulated without their consent.

● We are promoting stronger federal copyright protections — for humans. We believe using copyrighted works to train generative AI is infringement, and that AI-created work cannot be copyrighted.

● We have publicly stated our position grounded in federal labor law; namely, acquiring rights to train an AI system with a performer’s voice and likeness, or using an AI system to create new performances using a performer’s voice and likeness, must be bargained with the union — a company cannot obtain those rights from individual performers. SAG-AFTRA will protect our members from unscrupulous companies seeking to usurp an actor’s most valuable assets in areas of our jurisdiction.

SAG-AFTRA isn’t afraid of new tech and new ways of doing things. But, as the saying goes, “With great power comes great responsibility,” and these tools must be used to explore new frontiers of human creativity, not to sideline people in favor of a “good-enough” algorithm that regurgitates remixes of actual creative works.

We want to work with employers to discuss acceptable and unacceptable uses of AI, and we can be partners if companies acknowledge the value our members — and all creators — bring to human storytelling. If companies are willing to work with us, rather than sacrificing their integrity for next quarter’s profit, it will be a win for not just SAG-AFTRA members and the others who create the industry’s most memorable moments in film, television and music, but also a win for the employers — and viewers and listeners too.

Let’s choose a future where human creativity is catalyzed by every tool available, not a hollow world where bots and algorithms generate our culture, and humans are an afterthought. Without people, you have nothing.

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland is the National Executive Director and Chief Negotiator for SAG-AFTRA.

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