Deepfakes and German law

A couple months ago a friend sent me this entertaining fake clip of Richard Nixon reading an alternative speech – never given – announcing the deaths of the Moon landing astronauts. Naturally, it made me wonder how deepfakes will be handled in English/US law compared to German law when clips like these inevitably become more common.

The German legal system typically gives citizens more extensive privacy rights than common law does. The German Art Copyright Act (Kunsturheberrechtsgesetz) prohibits using someone’s images without their consent. The German Telemedia Act (Telemediengesetz) and Network Enforcement Act (Netzdurchsetzungsgesetz) provide tools for preventing the distribution of prohibited content through social media. Finally, as part of the general personality right (Persönlichkeitsrecht) granted by the German Basic Law (Germany’s constitution), individuals have a “right to their own image” (Recht am eigenen Bild). This means people have a right to decide whether pictures of them may be published. In an example case, in 2009 the District Court of Ingolstadt ruled that a picture of people dancing at a night club in which individual faces were visible could not be published without the consent of those recognisably depicted:

Head note of case

1. Die Veröffentlichung von Fotos, die eine Person in einer Menge von Menschen in einer Disco zeigen, wobei jedoch die Erkennbarkeit der Gesichtszüge der fotografierten Person als Einzelperson gewahrt bleibt, ist ohne Genehmigung der fotografierten Person grundsätzlich unzulässig.

2. Eine ausdrückliche oder konkludente Einwilligung aufgrund der Tatsache, dass es heute zunehmend als üblich angesehen wird, dass in Diskotheken zu Werbezwecken Fotografien gefertigt und im Internet veröffentlicht werden, ist vorliegend nicht anzunehmen. Insbesondere kann auch im Betreten der Diskothek nicht per se vor diesem Hintergrund eine stillschweigende Einwilligung erkannt werden.

Quick translation

1. The publication of photographs depicting a person in a crowd of people at a night club in which the facial features of the photographed person as an individual are recognisable is fundamentally prohibited without the consent of the photographed person.

2. The fact that it is increasingly considered usual today for photographs to be taken in night clubs and published on the Internet for advertising purposes does not mean that explicit or implicit consent can be assumed in this case. In particular, entering the night club cannot per se be recognised as tacit consent because of this background.

Another area where German law gives strong protection is “revenge porn.” In the UK, revenge porn was made a sexual offence in the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015. In the USA, the law differs on a state-by-state basis: most states ban revenge porn, but whether it is classed as a felony or a misdemeanour varies. In Germany, meanwhile, the Federal Court of Justice found revenge porn to be a violation of a person’s constitutional rights:

Head note of case

Fertigt im Rahmen einer intimen Beziehung ein Partner vom anderen intime Bild- oder Filmaufnahmen, kann dem Abgebildeten gegen den anderen nach dem Ende der Beziehung ein Löschanspruch wegen Verletzung seines Persönlichkeitsrechts zustehen, wenn er seine Einwilligung in die Anfertigung und Verwendung der Aufnahmen auf die Dauer der Beziehung – konkludent – beschränkt hat.

Quick translation

If, in the course of an intimate relationship, one partner creates intimate images or videos of the other, the depicted individual may have a claim to deletion against the other partner after the relationship ends on the basis of violation of his or her right of personality if he or she – implicitly – limited his or her consent to the creation and use of the images or videos to the duration of the relationship.

Where does this leave deepfakes in Germany? Probably nowhere good. Private individuals will no doubt have claims to injunction and damages, if they have the means and wherewithal to pursue them. Public figures and politicians generally enjoy less protection, especially against satire or other substantive criticism of their actions. My gut feeling is that deepfakes that aren’t obviously satire – which, one supposes, defeats the purpose of a deepfake masquerading as “real news” – will readily be found to be violations of personality rights or may constitute defamation, depending on the case. But I’m no lawyer, and this looks to be a complicated and rapidly evolving area of the law. Drop me a line if you know of any interesting court decisions about deepfakes!

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