Giulia Castelli, director of rights clearances at BENlabs, on their pioneering role in the licensing of icons recreated by technology

Remember when the leader of the Roman Catholic church was photographed wearing an oversized puffer jacket reminiscent of the latest Balenciaga collection? The incongruous image sent the internet into a tailspin  – but it wasn’t real. Pope Francis was simply the target of the latest AI-generated ‘gotcha’ moment. The incident prompted the internet to collectively sit up and take notice of the growing accuracy of AI and its ability to mimic reality.

Manipulating the likeness of an icon or image is not a new concept: special effects artists, for example, have been pushing the boundaries of realism for decades. However, the legal implications of licensing in the age of AI remain unclear. For this reason, BENlabs, the global leader in product placement, influencer marketing and licensing, work tirelessly to remain at the forefront of new technologies and the resulting copyright laws. 

Having led the way for every aspect of licensing in advertising for over 30 years, the company follows the developments of generative AI and deeplearning closely, taking stock of how leaders in the ad industry are utilising the technology. So far this year a number of major ad campaigns have utilised AI – from Stella Artois’ ‘The Artois of Probability’ to Guy Ritchie’s Cartier commercial, ‘Tank’ – illustrating the growing prevalence of AI in advertising.

The latter campaign stars Rami Malek, who is joined by an icon of French cinema, Catherine Deneuve. Cleverly used as a storytelling device, the ‘Tank’ watch takes the audience on a journey through time, revisiting Deneuve in her most famous starring roles. “AI was a crucial element of this film as it was used to recreate Catherine’s likeness in each particular movie that they licensed,” says Giulia. “Campaigns like this exemplify the power of AI and the importance of our role as licensees of iconic image rights.” As it stands, the world of generative AI and deep fakes can often feel like the Wild West, with the future of AI regulation as yet unknown to those involved. BENlabs’ position in the industry gives them access to a number of associations and networks that are at the forefront of industry developments, qualifying them as the best placed to provide assistance to any clients that might need advice on preventive measures related to the responsible use of Icons in the age of AI.

Keen to point out to clients that what is created now will most likely be subject to copyright consequences later down the line, Giulia explains, “Over a decade ago, back in 2010, we worked on a campaign where the client had recreated the talent using CGI. AI is doing exactly the same now, and the intersectional mechanism of licensing is the same.”

“The increasingly sophisticated nature of new tools has resulted in increased potential for misuse of AI-generated imagery and deep fakes. As with any infringements, rights holders will be on the lookout for misuse of their IP, and we work with our partners by building trust and collaboration to ensure each use is carefully vetted, reviewed and approved by all parties,” she says.

Despite its shape-shifting qualities and current lack of concrete regulations, the legal implications of using AI-generated technology is no different than any other form of creative that utilises third parties’ content. “We urge clients to be careful because it’s going to be regulated in the next few years and who knows how things might change. Our approach is always to be cautious when other rights are included.”

Looking to the not-so-distant future of the industry, BENlabs is confident that traditional forms of creativity will be interspersed by AI-generated content. As a result, clients who seek authenticity will have to partner with trusted companies to ensure that all the materials they are using are licensed properly, and any reference to iconic personalities are verified and approved by the respective rights holders. “AI is here to stay, and BENlabs will continue to work in tandem with new tools to ensure licensing needs are met at no cost to the creative.”

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