Digital clones and collectibles are proliferating online and off.
Baseball trading cards? Sure. X-Files Barbie? Why not? They're known as brand extensions, and they're big business. But decorations for your computer desktop? Artificial life inhabiting your OS? Who knew you could build a business selling something that doesn't actually exist?
Welcome to the world of digital property, where technology makes the ineffable sellable.
The trend probably started in 1995 with the release of a digital dog created by a San Francisco-based company called PF.Magic. More than a screensaver, the cartoon canine, named Dogz, had a rudimentary artificial intelligence that let it interact with its owner by growing, defecating, playing and learning. Others in the Petz line--Catz and Oddballz--followed, just little chunks of code that could live happily on a computer desktop and that people really wanted to own; global sales are nearing two million units, at $19.95 a pet. The release of Creatures by CyberLife, a competitive product, in 1996, made digital property a category. The Cambridge, England-based CyberLife's Creatures are chipmunk-like cartoon beings that come with highly detailed environments. Creatures also sell for $19.99, which seems to be the going rate for artificial life.
Both of these are stand-alone digital properties; both have spawned a plethora of devotees' Web sites on the net. Now, however, the market is broadening to include properties, and even celebrities, who got their start in analog media, making it possible that digital collectibles will become yet another outgrowth of the online age. But these small collections of code could also lead to virtual performances by long-gone celebrities, and answer a number of trademark and copyright concerns on the part of content creators.
For some time now, fans of specific TV shows, stars and sports teams have proven eager and able to create Web site tributes to them; New York-based Comedy Central says there are hundreds devoted to its off-kilter cartoon series South Park. But such tributes are usually posted without their creators securing proper trademarks and copyrights. Content providers might like to encourage this sort of homegrown promotion, but they're in a use-it-or-lose-it situation with regard to their trademark and copyright protections. If they ever do want to sue for infringement, they'll have to prove that they've diligently fought unauthorized use, a logistical nightmare in the maze of the Internet.
"If I let bits out the window, they can be manipulated any way anyone can manipulate them," explains Brent C.J. Britton, partner in Britton Silberman & Cervantez LLP, a San Francisco law firm specializing in intellectual property and new media. "Digital watermarking doesn't prevent people from taking and using your work. Plus you have to track them down. Policing all this stuff is a big issue."
Enter Newton, Mass.-based Parable Software's Thingmaker, a tool which merges the for-the-computer-only collectibles concept started by PF.Magic with already existing properties. Released last January, Thingmaker creates tamper-proof multimedia properties which Parable calls "Things" that also bear an intrinsic copyright. Better yet, content providers who create Things can embed a permanent link to their Web site in each Thing, letting links to their Web site become distributed on fan sites all over the Web. Comedy Central's South Park Things are already proliferating on the Net, and this week the New England Patriots plan to launch a Thing-enabled version of their site, where fans will be able to collect digital trading cards of their favorite players. Unlike Petz, Things are free to individuals who want to collect them.
"It creates a connection to our site and adds value for people who've invested their time and money in following the team," explains Fred Kirsch, the Patriots' director of interactive media. "We're allowing our fans to take these Things and put them on their own desktops or Web sites, but it establishes a link between that Thing and Patriots.com any way we can keep people coming back, that's a good thing."
Parable's director of content partners, Andrew Collins, calls it "a terrific way for them to leverage their intellectual property. It's basically product placement but it's done on the user's own terms, creating an organic proliferation of the brand."
That proliferation may be limited to cute little cartoon characters for now, but as computing power continues to explode, there'll be a fading boundary between the digital and the real. What if your property is an actor who's past his prime? Maybe so far past his prime that he's dead?
Jeffrey Lotman, CEO of sister companies Global Icons and Virtual Celebrities in Los Angeles, proposes not only to keep aging film stars working indefinitely, but to raise the dead, offering a new generation of directors the opportunity to work with movie stars of the past.
Such as Marlene Dietrich. Her grandson, Peter Rivas, is up to speed on the value of intellectual property as president of the Wassaic, New York-based idea brokerage International Transactions. After spending 20 years and as much as $1 million protecting rights to the Dietrich image, he is partnering with Lotman to develop new markets for her, including the creation of what Lotman has trademarked as a "digital clone." The plan is to use the three truckloads of memorabilia, 150 hours of videotape and 2000 hours of original voice recordings that Rivas controls to create a massive Dietrich database, which filmmakers could then use to "reanimate" the actress in original roles by generating a photo-realistic animation. She would be much more than a collectible--she'd look as real as John Wayne does in the Coors beer commercial; the difference is that in those spots, the action is built around existing film footage. If the commercial's creators couldn't find a shot of Wayne hoisting a glass of beer, they would have been out of luck. But the digital Dietrich will sip any way you want her to.
Lotman launched his company in April and is madly inking deals with the estates of other "non-breathing celebrities," as well as some living ones. His strategy is to get the agreements signed now, then let the technology catch up. The estates of Sammy Davis, Jr., W.C. Fields and James Cagney are already clients. Though Global Icons will handle traditional types of licensing, Lotman says that it's the digital clone angle of Virtual Celebrities that's heating up the action. He estimates that in three years the market for digital celebrity appearances in commercials will be $100 million, growing to $250 million in five years.
In 10 years, perhaps a portly Bruce Willis will send his svelte digital double to the set while he stays home with Ben and Jerry. Best-selling authors could forego grueling book tours, letting digital intelligences respond to those repetitive audience questions. Attractive women could sell much more than their photos or videos on the Web. Anyone who wants to could become a brand and let the wild and woolly Internet set the price.