New mashup site stirs gnashing at SAG, elsewhere
Plenty of people fantasize about meeting celebrities. How about inhabiting their bodies and mouthing their lines?
A new website called Mashface lets users choose photos of celebrities and superimpose webcam recordings and sound effects to make -- presumably -- humorous video messages that they can post on social network sites like YouTube. "You can do things like make Britney give parenting advice, or have Brad Pitt remind your friend of something stupid he did the night before," touts a press release from the site's creator, Montreal-based Xtranormal Technology Inc.
But Mashface wasn't drawing laughs from the Screen Actors Guild, which has been fighting to protect the exploitation of actors' images and likenesses on the Web. "I'm sorry, it's not a harmless form of expression when you're taking people's images and holding them up to ridicule,'' says Kent McCord, who chairs SAG's new-technologies committee and who played recurring roles on "Dragnet" and "Adam-12," among other series. "It's a violation of the law."
Ricky Cheung, executive producer of Xtranormal, disputes that assessment, saying the images on Mashface are a form of parody and therefore covered by the "fair use" doctrine under federal copyright law. The company launched Mashface two weeks ago to help drive traffic to another website that allows people to make their own animated movies, and has since drawn 50,000 visitors, Cheung says.
Actors have long been sensitive to how their images are used. The guild joined Fred Astaire's widow in 1999 to push successfully for a California law to protect the images of deceased celebrities after a commercial featured Astaire dancing with a Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner. Then last year, California passed a more comprehensive protection law after Marilyn Monroe's face began appearing in unauthorized products, including "Marilyn Monroe hipster panties" sold on the Internet.
More recently, SAG balked at a studio proposal that would allow the studios to sell or license excerpts of TV shows and movies for use on the Internet, cellphones and other new-media devices without actors' consent. Instead, the studios proposed obtaining blanket consent at the time an actor is hired. The sides are still haggling over just how that would work.
Barry Tyerman, an entertainment attorney whose celebrity clients include Robert Redford and Sean Connery, says he is not familiar with Mashface but believes it typifies the widespread exploitation of actors' images across the Web.
"We spend a fair amount of time writing cease-and-desist letters to various websites,'' he says. "It's like stamping out ants at a picnic."
-- Richard Verrier
Photo: A mashup from Mashface.com