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Do we ever truly own our image rights?

There’s been a lot of talk in recent months about the importance of Intalectual Property (IP) and with recent court case battles between Apple and Samsung, it’s clear that it’s a subject that won’t ever be out of the spotlight for long. (other recent stories of note include: Samsung V’s LG and the US government’s crackdown on patent trolls)

The debate over ownership is usually associated with things like image rights for photographs on Pinterest or music file sharing over the internet. It’s even rumoured that the Hollywood actor Bruce Willis is considering a legal fight against Apple, to ensure ownership of his iTunes music collection passes to his children after his death.

However, the subject I’ve been thinking about is a little more abstract or hard to quantify in terms of its ability to be owned than a physical product or even licensing rights of a digital file.

On a recent car journey with the radio turned up, I heard a new ad from the car manufacturer Volkswagon. The commentary for the ad appears to be the ‘voice’ of physicist Dr. Stephen Hawking with multiple references to science and the universe.

Kudos to VW for using this world renowned figure just days after he played a pivotal role in the opening ceremony for the Paralympic Games in London, but the ad got me thinking – is that really the ‘voice’ of the famous Doctor, albeit his digital one generated by a computer?

Normally I wouldn’t think twice about a celebrity doing the voice over for such an advertising campaign, but because of the synthetic nature of Dr. Hawking’s recognisable ‘voice’ it’s  not impossible that VW had simply used a software program of their own to generate this audible commentary…

after all, Dr. Hawking doesn’t own the rights to every computer generated voice does he?

It’s the sort of wide ranging and almost laughable claim to ownership that technology giant Apple, use on a regular basis to patent ideas such as ‘a large flat rectangular touch screen device’.

But in this instance I’m inclined to think that maybe the eminent physicist would have a valid claim as a blatant and planned use of his own personal identity had been used to promote Volkswagon’s products.  For if we combine the sound of the robotic voice with the sentiment of the words spoken there’s little doubt for any listener that it is the Doctor ‘speaking’.

This radio ad obviously isn’t alone in it’s celebrity tie-in factor.  The ‘More Than Insurance’ adverts for instance use a spoof version of the actor Morgan Freeman as their character “More Than Freeman”, but who knows whether the real Mr Freeman is getting paid for the use of his ‘image’.

As it turns out, the Volkswagon radio ad in question does in fact use the actual words of Dr. Hawking recorded by himself on his own speech device, but as we move deeper into an age of digital voices and 3D characters, will there be time in the near future when the only item we have actual ownership rights over is physical property such as our house or car?


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