A licencing nightmare: Why the ethical and legal debate over music holograms continues

Who owns what? Is the estate entitled to their share?

Holograms at concerts are becoming more commonplace. Tupac Shakur’s appearance at the 2012 Coachella festival opened the door to virtual Michael Jackson, Billie Holiday, Roy Orbison, Maria Callas, Ronnie James Dio, Amy Winehouse and Frank Zappa. As they become more commonplace, the ethical and legal debate around them continue – and could, indeed, escalate.

The ethical debate ranges from dead celebrities turning on old and new fans and generating money for their fave celebrities to the sound of hissing: Exploitative! Disrespectful! Ghoulish! The legal issues cover infringement of intellectual property including trademark and the right of publicity, which protects a celebrity’s name, likeness, voice and mannerisms.

So far these have not surfaced because the companies behind the holographic recreations have worked closely with the families and estates of the dead. But as these virtual shows become money-poppers (The 15-date Orbison virtual tour in Europe sold 38,000 tickets), others will try and cash in. Celebs’ families will need to be in control of images of their likeness that created the virtual performer, and ensure that recorded music and video be licensed. Who owns the photos and videos from which the image was made? Should they get a financial share of the hologram? Contracts between the celebrity’s estate and the hologram producer would have to spell out on share of profit and artistic control.

“Consent for holograms is going to be a hot topic,” Catherine Allen, founder of the arts venue virtual reality platform Limina Immersive and an expert on VR and its ethics, told The Guardian last year. “As long as the person has consented it’s fine,” she added (but would someone like Amy Winehouse, who hated the fame and the touring, have consented?). “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.”

It is not always peaceful in hologram world. The Amy Winehouse tour, to begin this year and to come to Australia, has just been pulled for the time being. Tech company BASE said, “In developing the type of highly ambitious, state-of-the-art hologram/augmented reality theatrical event that would truly capture [Winehouse’s] genius and incredible artistic and social contributions, we have encountered some unique challenges and sensitivities.” It has refused to say what these were. In the meantime, The Bizarre World Of Frank Zappa tour in the US and Europe ran into problems when Ticketmaster refused to use the official tour artwork citing "questionable content". The censored image pays homage to the 1974 song 'Penguin in Bondage'. Zappa’s son, Ahmet Zappa, said "If you're someone that can't enjoy the absurdity and humour of bringing Frank's music and lyrics to life via holograms – such as penguins in bondage, talking hot dogs and supernatural dental floss – this show might not be your cup of tea.”