A dystopian AI proposal raises questions about what happens to creative industries when all but the most recognizable figures are deemed disposable

In 1976, the actor Carrie Fisher signed over her likeness to the filmmaker George Lucas. “When you’re 19 you don’t even think about these things. In those days, there was no merchandising tied to movies. No one could have known the extent of the franchise,” she recalled in a 2011 interview with The Daily Beast, which has since been taken offline. “Not that I don’t think I’m cute or anything, but when I looked in the mirror, I didn’t think I was signing away anything of value.”

Thirty-some years later, Fisher was shopping at Williams-Sonoma and saw they were selling cupcake sticks with Princess Leia’s face on them. “Who wouldn’t need those?” she said, and got out her wallet. “I paid for it. How much money could I have made from all this stuff? I don’t want to know.”

When the actor passed away in 2016, Princess Leia didn’t die with her. She appeared posthumously in the franchise’s Episode VIII, as well as in Rogue One, where Lucas used CGI to recreate the appearance of young Leia for a cameo. He also brought back the long-dead actor Peter Cushing, who reprised his role of Grand Moff Tarkin—making him one of the first digitally-resurrected ghosts to appear on the silver screen, and certainly not the last.

With advances in technology opening up more possible scenarios for posthumous use of one’s image, the actors union SAG-AFTRA soon began to lobby for all states to enact protections around the use of celebrities’ likeness after death—eventually leading to new legislation in New York that extends rights of publicity up to 40 years postmortem.

Now, that same union is fighting to protect the rights of actors while they’re still alive, prompted by the Hollywood studios’ desire to replace background actors with AI. As one of SAG-AFTRA’s chief negotiators, Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, put it: “They proposed that our background performers should be able to be scanned, get one day’s pay, and their company should own that scan”—meaning that studios would be able to utilize their likeness in films for the rest of eternity, in any project they want, without compensation.

Such a deal would rob emerging actors of work, shutting down one of the only reliable pipelines for new talent to gain experience on movie and TV sets. It’s why SAG-AFTRA, which represents 160,000 performers, has joined the Writers Guild of America (WGA) in striking against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which negotiates on behalf of major studios.

WGA’s strike began May 2, prompted by the union’s concerns about shrinking pay for writers and producers—a direct consequence of the streaming economy, and the ways studios cut costs in order to keep up with the demand for new content. WGA has also made demands about the use of AI in the writer’s room—something many consider an existential threat.

“They proposed that our background performers should be able to be scanned, get one day’s pay, and their company should own that scan for the rest of eternity.”

In recent months, automation has cast a shadow over countless industries, spurring debates about the future of intellectual property across music, art, and now film. Advocates for the technology have made the case that AI could serve as a tool, helping to enhance the work of writers and artists—but for actors, whose livelihood is inextricably linked to their physical likeness, it’s hard to imagine how advancements in AI could be used to their benefit.

It also poses new labor issues—because when machines can replace the human hand, workers face a reduction in bargaining power. According to writer and artist Molly Crabapple, “Technological advancements are funded with the money of capitalists, for the goal of deskilling workers: disempowering them by making them less able to assert their rights, more replaceable, more interchangeable, and more alienated.” In the past, she notes, machines like the self-acting spinning mule have been deliberately invented to break the power of striking factory workers.

It makes sense, then, that labor unions would play a key role in the fight against AI. “We had no choice. We are being victimized by a very greedy entity,” says SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher. “They stand on the wrong side of history at this very moment. If we don’t stand tall right now, we are all going to be in jeopardy of being replaced by machines.”

These strikes mark the unions’ first joint walkout since 1960, and they’re expected to halt the majority of Hollywood’s film and TV productions. Across the pond, Equity—another performing arts union—has been fighting a similar battle, lobbying for laws that would prevent the use of performers’ voices and likenesses without consent of compensation.

In a recent survey, nearly 80 percent of Equity members who have undertaken AI work said they didn’t feel they had a “full understanding” of their rights before signing their contracts. According to musician Holly Herndon, this kind of “fast clause” is common in creative industries, where many artists are encouraged to sign exploitative contracts whenever new opportunities for profit arise. The advent and popularization of sampling technology, for instance, left countless musicians in the lurch—including the likes of Gregory S. Coleman, the drummer behind the “Amen Break.” Through the six-second clip became the world’s most-sampled piece of music—used in songs and albums that made millions—Coleman never received royalties beyond the sale of the original recording, and died homeless.

“There are a lot of things that are legal on a technicality,” says Mat Dryhurst, an AI researcher and Herndon’s longtime partner. “So whether you’re a musician or a writer or an actor, you might find that, at some point in 1999, you signed a contract that said, ‘You are free to use this media for whatever purpose.’ But, of course, nobody anticipated that would mean you’d be signing over the rights to the use of your likeness in perpetuity, via an AI model you can train in an hour.”

At present, automation poses a distinct threat not to established talent, but to the creative middle class: Those who can cobble together an income from their craft, but who have not yet reached mainstream recognition. For these actors, background roles are not only a way to pay rent, but a pathway to the kind of professional connections that could lead to their big break. The cost-cutting measures proposed by Hollywood studios threaten to disrupt this fragile ecosystem, raising questions about what creative industries stand to lose when all but the most established are deemed disposable. Today’s most recognizable figures—the A-list actors and blue-chip artists who have become household names—will be fine. But what happens to the next generation, when there are no longer opportunities to become recognizable?