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    Phantom Fame: In China, Debate Grows Over AI-Cloned Celebrities

    A surge in the practice of creating AI-cloned videos of dead celebrities has sparked criticism from their families and raised legal concerns over the protection of image and privacy rights.

    From Chinese celebrities such as singer Coco Lee and actor Qiao Renliang to Western icons like Michael Jackson and Kobe Bryant, AI-generated videos on Chinese short-video platforms are bringing the dead back to virtual life, sparking renewed debates over the ethical and legal boundaries of using AI.

    The practice, ranging from heartfelt tributes to blatant commercial exploitation, has drawn criticism from the families of celebrities who have died, while experts highlighting potential legal issues emphasized that the rights of the departed, including image and privacy, are protected by law.

    On Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, videos have surfaced showing Lee, Qiao Renliang, and singer Yao Beina, who died in 2023, 2016, and 2015, respectively, speaking to the audience with their own voices.

    While some content creators claim to have “resurrected” these figures in response to requests from fans, many are leveraging the videos to drive traffic to businesses specializing in digital resurrection.

    One AI-generated video opens with the greeting, “Hello everyone, I’m Kimi, Qiao Renliang, and I haven’t really left.” The video featuring Qiao, who took his own life in 2016, shows him in a white shirt, his facial expressions and mouth movements slightly off, yet still eerily reminiscent of the actual person speaking.

    On March 16, Qiao’s father told domestic media that he was unable to accept the recreation and that he felt uncomfortable watching the AI depiction of his son.

    “Who gave them the right to do this? It’s not just about (legal) infringements; it’s a lack of respect. We cannot accept this if it’s for commercial gain,” he told Hongxing News. He added, however, that he could understand it if fans used it as a form of memorial.

    Such videos have also sparked discontent on Chinese social media. “Respect for those who have passed is paramount. It’s unacceptable to proceed without the family’s consent. Please stop exploiting those who have passed and let them rest in peace,” stated one blogger’s plea on the microblogging platform Weibo with over 1,400 likes.

    Creating a customized 60-second video of a dead celebrity costs about 600 yuan ($83), according to a Douyin-based digital resurrection service. To commission such a video, customers need to provide a frontal video clip of the celebrity speaking for at least 10 seconds, along with a voice recording lasting 10 seconds or more.

    “Starting from when customers collect all the materials and send them to me, it will take a maximum of 24 hours to train the AI service,” a representative of the business told Sixth Tone. The accuracy of voice replication can exceed 90% if the voice recording is in Mandarin rather than regional dialects, the representative added.

    The service extends beyond video to the creation of digital avatars using AI, facilitating real-time interaction. Though the representative did not disclose specific pricing, stating that it varies based on the complexity of the request, such services typically demand more time and resources than video or photo cloning.

    Another provider on Douyin offers holographic AI clone videos, less than five minutes in length, for 1,499 yuan. These videos replicate the physical movements, facial expressions, and voice of the person and are delivered within two business days.

    Taobao, China’s leading e-commerce platform, even features services that “revive” lost relatives with AI, with prices ranging from a few to several hundred yuan, though they primarily animate old photographs.

    Amid the growing controversy, the creator of the videos featuring actor Qiao has since deleted all content from Douyin. Yet, videos of other dead celebrities remain accessible online, with some companies shifting focus to replicate international stars like Michael Jackson and Kobe Bryant to garner attention.

    “We still accept orders to resurrect dead celebrities, but we can’t be too high-profile. It may be okay to do videos of foreign celebrities or those with authorization,” a representative of a company offering such AI services told Sixth Tone.

    With advances in AI now offering novel ways to process grief and reconnect with those who have passed, experts caution against the potential legal issues from using AI to memorialize the departed.

    Han Xiao, a partner at Kangda Law Firm in Beijing, told Sixth Tone that the law still protects the rights of individuals after death, covering areas such as image, privacy, and reputation. Family members have the right to sue creators if AI-cloned videos of late celebrities infringe upon these rights.

    “The behavior of netizens has already caused mental anguish to the close relatives of Qiao Renliang and infringed upon his portrait rights. The close relatives of Coco Lee and Qiao Renliang can file a lawsuit for infringement on this basis,” said Han, adding that legal repercussions could be more severe if a court found that AI had been used to spread “false information.”

    According to Han, even if creators do not use AI to “resurrect” celebrities for profit, it might still infringe on the image rights of the dead. He said: “It is necessary to communicate and obtain permission from the family of the departed to avoid being held accountable for infringement.”

    Additional reporting: Lü Xiaoxi; editor: Apurva.

    (Header image: Screenshots show AI-generated videos of celebrities Qiao Renliang, Coco Lee, and Godfrey Gao (from left to right). From Douyin)