The Strange Dead Celebrity Hologram Industry and its Even Stranger Ethical Questions

The Strange Dead Celebrity Hologram Industry and its Even Stranger Ethical Questions

Amy Winehouse, the music icon who tragically passed away of alcohol poisoning almost a decade ago, is set to return for another tour. For those of you left with twitching eyes and utter confusion, Reuters reports that just seven years after her passing, it was her father, Mitch Winehouse, who signed a contract with Base Hologram Entertainment to make a virtual reality version of his daughter that will perform across North America in 2019. In the vein of fellow digitized artists, such as Tupac Shakur and Michael Jackson, the story has reignited the ethical debate surrounding famous icons, image rights and the strange industry making millions selling dead celebrity holograms.

As explained in reports from Vox and Rolling Stone, there are three players at the heart of hologram entertainment: major rival companies Pulse Evolution and Hologram USA, each established in buying up digitization rights, as well as Base Entertainment as the relative newcomer. Hologram USA, which owns the rights to Patsy Cline, Buddy Holly and Billie Holiday, was the company that famously took the Whitney Houston family to court after they issued disputes with their scheduled 2016 tour they claim was “in breach of contract,” according to their lawsuit documents.

Their legal troubles didn’t stop there, however. In 2014, Hologram ultimately sued Pulse over a “patent violation” days before the Billboard Music Awards, where the company were to showcase their Michael Jackson hologram. After two years, Pulse reportedly settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed amount in damages and was forced to live with their other “digitally-enabled ghosts” of successful dead artists the likes of Elvis Presley, Selena and now Marilyn Monroe, which also resulted in an infamous lawsuit against Digicon Media by her family.

Though holograms aren’t entirely new, this sort of industry competition really started once Digital Domain, a now crumbled special effects company, showed their version of Tupac at venues like Coachella and the 2012 Billboard Awards. It began as a multi-million-dollar venture that, at the time, was literally just smoke, mirrors and light refracting a projection of 2D CGI footage. Now the technology has evolved into the complete digital reconstructions of deceased individuals, leaving the executives of Base to also creepily jump into the market.

As explained by Base’s executive producer Marty Tudor when speaking to Vox, the company promises to stand as “one of the most aggressive and unique” companies to overtake the industry. Their plans reportedly include nationwide tours, hoping to secure more big-name artists who passed away like Winehouse, which they plan to reconstruct and sell for “permanent theatrical residences.” If we’re reading this right, who needs iTunes, Spotify, old videos and live concerts when you too can personally own a dead celebrity for your entertainment? All it costs is your general sense of shame, a little bit of stalker perversion and, as Tudor revealed, “actors who resemble [the artists] physically to create a ‘bank of movements’.”

It’s not like there isn’t an audience for holographic performances. Base Holograms initially rose to success when their Roy Orbison tour generated interest across 10 UK cities just earlier this year. Given these venues are always met with mixed responses from fans and critics, ultimately, there is a discussion of property rights to be had.

Winehouse’s father, keep in mind, has often been criticized as an exploitative figure in her life, yet he’s the one selling her image that could surely generate millions in revenue. “They are trying to portray me in the worst possible light,” Mr. Winehouse once said regarding the 2015 documentary on his daughter.

“They [the film-makers] were a bit like the police in the 70s. They ‘knew’ who the villains were … and now they had to make it fit. Just like they did with the Birmingham Six. And guess what — they were innocent, and so are we. We made many mistakes,” he continued, “but not loving our daughter was not one of them.”

Given that Winehouse never had a 3D scan of her face and was never consulted about such holographic topics, is it ethical for a company to sell her image after death for the foreseeable future? Is there is a difference between selling her music, her movies, advertisements, all the little ventures she’s consciously made, and selling the individual as their posthumous performing monkey? This creature made a (virtual) reality only through the elaborate process of a team of animators scanning through all her work to make their own famous Frankenstein? Where does the line between honoring and exploitation of the dead begin?

“Consent for holograms is going to be a hot topic,” says Catherine Allen, founder of Limina Immersive and an expert on VR, speaking to The Guardian. “As long as the person has consented it’s fine. And this is where it gets tricky with Amy. It is about simulating experiences to audiences as if they were real, rather than representing things through symbols. An audience member ‘does’ an augmented reality or a virtual reality experience rather than watches it. It is important to think about ethics at this early stage of the development of the immersive sector, because it is still relatively new, it is still being shaped. The norms that we create now will set the standard for the future.”

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