Scarlett Johansson launches legal action in a case of AI imitating life imitating art

Scarlett Johansson at the 2020 Oscars.
(Image credit: Robyn Beck via Getty Images)

Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson has launched legal action against an AI app that used her name and an AI likeness in an online advert, needless to say without permission. This is particularly ironic given that one of Johansson's most memorable roles was in the excellent 2013 film Her, where she voices an AI virtual assistant called Samantha that protagonist Theodore falls in love with.

First reported by Variety, the 22-second ad has now unsurprisingly disappeared. It was for an image-generating app called Lisa AI: 90s Yearbook & Avatar, and per Variety began with a (genuine) clip of Johansson behind-the-scenes while playing Black Widow. "What’s up guys," says Johansson, "It’s Scarlett and I want you to come with me…" before the ad transitions into AI-generated photos closely resembling the actor and an AI Johansson voice starts promoting the app, ending with the line "I think you shouldn’t miss it".

The ad did have some small print saying "Images produced by Lisa AI. It has nothing to do with this person." That doesn't seem like any sort of mitigation really, though Lisa AI's developer Convert Software is hardly alone in doing this. AI-based celebrity fakes are getting ever-more widespread on social media and even mega A-listers like Tom Hanks have fallen victim to such shenanigans: Hanks was recently forced to deny endorsing a dental plan that used an AI version of him in its marketing, though is yet to sue.

"I could be hit by a bus tomorrow, and that’s it, but performances can go on and on and on and on," said Hanks of the technology. "And outside of the understanding that it’s been done with AI or deepfake, there’ll be nothing to tell you that it’s not me and me alone. And it’s going to have some degree of lifelike quality. That’s certainly an artistic challenge, but it’s also a legal one."

I've contacted Convert Software to ask for comment on the lawsuit, and will update with any response. One thing to note is that this doesn't seem to be some huge firm but is possibly a one-person operation: the social media accounts are largely unused, and among the app notes and reviews the company tends to talk in the first-person singular. Lisa AI itself is built on existing software like ChatGPT, though it does come with various subscription plans.

Whether the lawsuit actually goes anywhere is another matter: most of these things are settled quickly, especially when the infringement is so blatant, without the need for court. However the rise in such incidents means someone is going to push it eventually and try to set a precedent: Johansson's reps have confirmed she has nothing to do with the app, and her attorney Kevin Yorn told Variety: "We do not take these things lightly. Per our usual course of action in these circumstances, we will deal with it with all legal remedies that we will have."

Rich Stanton

Rich is a games journalist with 15 years' experience, beginning his career on Edge magazine before working for a wide range of outlets, including Ars Technica, Eurogamer, GamesRadar+, Gamespot, the Guardian, IGN, the New Statesman, Polygon, and Vice. He was the editor of Kotaku UK, the UK arm of Kotaku, for three years before joining PC Gamer. He is the author of a Brief History of Video Games, a full history of the medium, which the Midwest Book Review described as "[a] must-read for serious minded game historians and curious video game connoisseurs alike."