Seraphine, a new “virtual influencer” and League of Legends character, could be based on a VR-Artist and Cyberpunk Personality
Imagine waking up one morning and finding a cartoonified version of yourself splashed all over the internet. It’s not a photograph, but it’s close enough that even your mother would take another glance and ask if you’ve taken a second job as a model.
It’s inescapable. You’re on gaming websites and in magazines. Twenty feet high caricatures shoot by, plastered to the side of double-decker buses. People are using your face as their avatars on Discord while the next generation of printed gaming guides has an entire section dedicated to someone who is almost unmistakably you.
This happens to me all the time. I’m a 6’4 white guy with a shaved head and a scruffy beard. I see my likeness in popular media more often than I see it in a mirror.
But I’m an average looking dude, sporting a fairly unremarkable look. Apart from the skin tone, the sex and the latent animal magnetism, there’s very little about my physical appearance which couldn’t be achieved by anyone with access to a Bic Chrome Platinum and five minutes in the bath.
In short, I’m generic. An approximation of my physical appearance wouldn’t be out of place in any medium from back when the first images were scratched onto cave walls by my primitive ancestors.
But the same can’t be said for Sara Phinn, a US-based virtual reality artist. You would notice her in a crowd.
Note the pink hair, the pale skin, the sparkly shape under her eye, and then take a moment to consider her name once again. Sara Phinn.
You may think it’s an iconic cyberpunk look, and you would be correct. Then again, there is a very good reason for that.
But I have another picture for you (see below). Note the pink hair, the pale skin, the sparkly shape under her eye and then take a moment to consider this character’s name. Seraphine.
Seraphine Has to Be a Weird Coincidence, Right?
Sara’s look has been cultivated over the years. She wasn’t born with bright pink hair. She’s been dyeing it since 2016. The shape under her eye is stuck on, presumably with glue, and is an aspect of the artistic persona she has been growing into over the past decade. People just don’t have huge, metallic, suspiciously regular birthmarks. It’s not something that happens.
Even Sara’s surname is a fiction. Contrived in 2014 from a variety of sources and for reasons which are personal to her.
“I love the Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Seraphini as well as The Voynich Manuscript. Both are mysterious, undecipherable encyclopedias that look like they’re from other dimensions,” Phinn said to Cyberpunks.com. “I find hyper-dimensional things really interesting, and angels are as close as western culture really gets to entertaining ideas of hyper-dimensional beings aside aliens. I have a fascination with representations of hyper-dimensional entities and other worldly things. Sara Phinn is a play on words regarding the six winged angels, the Seraphim.”
And the eye?
“The geometric shape is just one of many looks I’ve created for my art and performances.,” she said. “By no means do I think its exclusively unique, just in combination with my hair and name it was one more deeply uncanny element that has lead me to question where Riot(Games) came up with their character’s ‘inspiration.'”
Uncanny is right. We spent a good half a day searching through photos of celebrities and porn stars, as well as a bunch of personal Facebook and Instagram pages. We were trying to find any person who shares the unique combination of attributes which comprise a sizable part of Sara’s persona and which are now among the defining characteristics of Riot Games’ newest star.
The results were pretty much as we expected. There were a few scattered Sara Phinneys and couple of Sara Phinns. None of them had pink hair. None of them boasted a silvery birthmark.
It was pretty clear cut, at least on first inspection, if Riot Games drew their inspiration for the character Seraphine from any real life person, the balance of probability tipped towards the inspiration being from Sara Phinn.
Does the League of Legend Character Matter?
Believe it or not, Americans have a right to privacy…of sorts. It’s a messy legal area which clashes with all sorts of other rights and laws. But we found the best layman’s summary here. We’ve laid out the appropriate parts below.
In the modern era, the general nature of a right of privacy is the right of a person to be free from unwarranted publicity or the unwarranted appropriation or exploitation of that person’s image, voice, or likeness.
A common law cause of action for misappropriation of name or likeness consists of the following elements:
- The defendant’s use of plaintiff’s identity
- The misappropriation of plaintiff’s name or likeness to defendant’s advantage, commercially or otherwise
- Lack of consent by the plaintiff and
- Resulting injury
It’s necessary to point out at this point that none of the writers at CyberPunks.com are lawyers. We’re a rag-tag bunch of happy-go-lucky freelancers, neuroscientists, crypto-anarchists and Viagra salesmen. Our opinion carries zero legal weight.
Ignore the legalese terms of ‘plaintiff’ and ‘defendant’ for now. We ripped the text from a fancy lawyering website.
Did Riot Games use Sara Phinn’s identity? Did they misappropriation her name or likeness to to their own advantage, commercially or otherwise?
Whether or not the Seraphine character is inspired by Sara Phinn or not is up in the air right now. We don’t know. We’ve reached out to Riot Games to ask them straight but as yet, they haven’t responded.
If they did, it’s certain Sara hasn’t consented. She couldn’t have because she wasn’t asked.
Has she been injured? Sure. Why not.
Sara isn’t some unknown rando. She’s an accomplished VR artist and publishes Youtube videos of her creative process. She conjures cats from thin air. Her other work includes conceptual art we can only effectively describe as flying space vaginas. Really. You should set an afternoon aside to take a look at her art.
In short, she is a professional with a brand image and a brand name – Sara Phinn. Having that brand diluted or potentially overpowered by her likeness and name appearing in one of the most successful online games of all time, without acknowledgement or compensation, is at the very least an insult.
Could Sara sue? Probably. Would she win? Probably not.
CyberPunks.com — Gone Fishing for Seraphine’s Inspiration
To constitute an invasion of privacy, the use of someone’s likeness and other protected attributes needs to be an intentional act.
We abandoned our search for real people on whom Riot’s Seraphine could have been based and took a winding journey into the world of Anime, fan art and weird Japanese video games.
Our first stop was in 2015, when Nippon Ichi Software released Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance. It’s described as “A tale of revenge and rebellion…hundreds of hours of over-the-top, award-winning gameplay”. The complete edition has thousands of ‘very positive’ reviews on Steam and is yours to own for a mere £29.99 ( $39.99).
One of the main characters has pink hair and looks like this.
You can see from the trailer image that her name is Seraphina. Again, it’s close to Sara Phinn and Seraphine. It’s obvious the character bears at least a superficial appearance to both.
But video games aren’t the only area in which we found more possible origins.The Webtoon Unordinary is a teen high-school drama set in a college where the social elite happen to possess unthinkable powers and abilities. It’s exactly what you’d expect, and comes complete with the usual complement of battles, frenemies, deadly conspiracies and destiny.
One of the principle protagonists is Seraphina (nicknamed Sera). She is introduced as a super-cool person who plays games on her phone.
And guess what? This Seraphina has pink hair, too.
We now have two Seraphinas, one Seraphine and a Sara Phinn. All of whom have pink hair and all of whom have a variant on the same supernaturally inspired name.
But what about the shape? That unlikely under-eye geometric mark which pushes the bounds of coincidence to levels beyond unbelievable?
Yeah. About that.
Sara’s first post of herself with the shape under her eye was published in April 2019. But on a random fan art site, we found this piece created a month earlier.
We even ran the image through exiftool, and the creation date was right there.
Twenty-three days prior to Sara Phinn’s picture using the geometric shape, a piece of fan art based on a random webtoon had, without her knowledge, preempted it.
Can we just take a moment to appreciate how phenomenally, astronomically unlikely that is.
It’s Going to Get Weirder for Sara Phinn
That Sara’s image wasn’t unique or original doesn’t change the story in any significant way, apart from making it considerably less likely that we’ll be sued for publishing it.
It doesn’t change Sara’s experience in any significant way either. Although, she hasn’t yet decided what to do about it.
Ultimately I want any actions I take to be on behalf of protecting other creators from having their likenesses stolen in the future by corporations. This is a problem that won’t go away until corporations realize they will be held accountable. In my research I’ve seen this has happened to other influencers and creators, their likenesses stolen by other companies such as mattel stealing a reporters likeness and the Bratz dolls company taking a young POC influencer’s likeness. This just seems to be the first time its been done with a virtual being. A few years ago, both Ellen Page and Lindsey Lohan had their likenesses stolen by two video game companies. Lindsey was ruled against and Ellen didn’t press charges. The video game company who took Ellen’s likeness changed the character a bit to avoid legal issues. Rockstar got away with it because the court ruled they’d changed enough about the character to warrant ‘freedom of expression’. I am not a celebrity. I am an independent artist and influencer/creative in the VR field. Going against a multimillion dollar company that obviously has no qualms is intimidating. ‘Equal treatment under law’ is a thing, but unfortunately little guys are often swept under the proverbial rug in law.
Companies with access to heavyweight legal representation and design teams have always been able to get away with a lot. But now, the power to appropriate people’s likenesses is in the hands of little people too. People like you.
Raise your hands up if you’ve ever photoshopped (other image editing software is available) the head of your crush onto the body of a pornstar and knocked one out over the resulting monstrosity.
You may have even gone one step further and edited it into a video. Pornhub is stuffed with celebrity lookalikes with similar stage names to the people they emulate being railed up against a [xxxx xxxx xxxx]. They get away with it because it’s parody porn. Along with the right to privacy, right to publicity and the concept of protected attributes, it is such a legally murky area that few stars are either inclined to or able to take action against the producers.
Deepfakes are new and they’re accessible. we assume you have seen Richard Nixon announcing the failure of the Apollo 11 mission along with the deaths of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. You’ve seen the deepfake of Nick Cage singing I will Survive while wearing a rather fetching blouse and dancing provocatively while clicking his fingers. There’s an entire subculture dedicated to pushing Nick Cage’s face where it doesn’t belong. You have, of course read our guide to how deepfakes will soon become undetectable.
But convincing deepfakes require a phenomenal amount of computing horsepower. That app on your phone which will throw out a substandard rendition of you performing at the Superbowl halftime show doesn’t do squat. The actual work takes place on a server farm where the heavy lifting is carried out by insanely powerful graphics cards.
Currently, you can produce deepfakes at home only if your desktop rig is a particularly beefy one. That barrier to entry will get lower year on year. With each new generation of processors, more and more people will be able to appropriate your image, use it for whatever they want and publish it as original work.
When the person who’s stolen your image and maybe even your name isn’t a giant corporation potentially making millions from it,but just some Joe doing it for the lulz, you really don’t have any recourse beyond asking the hosting platform to take it down.
And let’s throw another factor in there. What if they acquire your image through completely legal means? What can they do with it then?
If you use Instagram, you’re probably aware of the 2019 furore when a virulent morsel of fake news had users frantically reposting that Instagram was changing its terms and conditions so that it would automatically own any images uploaded to it.
The truth is that Instagram would never need to do that. Since its creation, every user who has ever signed up for an account on the platform has clicked through a legally binding agreement which allows Instagram a non-exclusive, royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license to photos, username, profile photo and relationship information.
Pay attention to the words transferable and sub-licensable here. They mean exactly what you think they do.
Did you read the Terms and Conditions? Did you read the Terms and Conditions on whatever random app you downloaded and which, for some reason needs unrestricted access to your photo gallery? Did you read the terms and conditions for the app to which you gave enough high quality video footage to actually make a semi-convincing fake?
Of course you didn’t. You have no idea what rights you’ve given away along with your data, your images, your location, your voice, your name, your WiFi signal strength, the names of your friends and your porn preference.
Next time, It Could Be You
As far as we’re aware, neither Instagram nor any of the other big players who retain rights to your images in perpetuity have actually exercised their transferable sub-licensing options. From a 2020 point of view, it’s unlikely that a games company would be able to secure the license which would allow them to use images of individuals in games without getting too bogged in the legal quagmire.
We’re guessing that it’s because by doing so, they’d scare users away from the platforms which make obscene amounts of money through selling your data in other ways.
But at some point, those revenue streams will dry up. The bottom will eventually fall out of personalized advertising. Image hosting sites will look for new forms of revenue. Even as they crumble to dust. Those licenses will one day be valuable, and the contracts you agreed to will be enforceable.
One day, not too far in the future, you could be waking up to find a cartoonified version of yourself splashed all over the internet. You could be on gaming websites and in magazines. Twenty feet high caricatures of your beautiful mug shooting by, plastered to the side of double-decker buses. People could be using your face as their avatars on Discord, while the next generation of printed gaming guides has an entire section dedicated to someone who is almost unmistakably you.