Morphing Images: Part 2 Potentially Hazardous Activity?

Amanda Grimm

In my previous article, Morphing Images: A Venture into Fantasyland, we explored the basic principles involved in morphing images. We also covered some of the different techniques and tools that can be used, as well as a few common problems associated with morphing. Before morphing images, however, it is important to consider the dangers involved in altering the way that another person appears to the online world.

This type of activity is not only a violation of privacy; it can easily be considered a federal crime. It is important to understand the ways in which image morphing is currently used and accepted, as well as understanding the legal implications that can arise from improper uses. Following, I'll explore the ways that morphing is currently being utilized throughout the Internet, and explain why morphing images can be a potentially hazardous activity.

One example of image morphing that can be found in abundance throughout the Internet is that of celebrity pornography. Do you really think that the majority of multi-millionaire celebrities choose to pose nude for Internet porn? Neither do I; it is obvious that image morphing techniques are frequently used to depict naked celebrities in images that they've never posed for, an extremely controversial subject. To view a simple morph between the faces of famous supermodels Cindy Crawford and Claudia Schiffer, achieved by using a combination of techniques from computer vision and raster graphics, click here. This is an excellent example of the realism with which human features can be portrayed and blended through morphing techniques. The only hints given to the program that created the morph were the X and Y coordinates of the eyes in the starting images, and the coordinates of twenty five adjacent, corresponding triangles around each model's chin. The eye-coordinates are used to achieve a crude similarity between the two inputs. The manually chosen triangles were only required in this case because Cindy Crawford's white collar, as it does not match up with Claudia Schiffer's hair or anything else in the second image, throws off the "multiscale optical flow algorithm" which is used to automatically identify correspondences between the pictures.1

Many fan sites on the Web exhibit morphed images portraying celebrities engaging in false situations as well. These images are often of the sort previously mentioned and are rarely composed due to negative interests, though the intentions and effects of the creation of such media are often entirely undesired by the celebrity in whose honor the images have been created. The majority of these fan clubs are ignored, bypassing the potential litigation issues that could easily be raised by media and entertainment companies because they are a form of promotion, and are not typically commercially oriented. On the other hand, the commercial use of celebrity images has consistently triggered swift reactions from the celebrities they portray. Commercializing dead celebrities illustrates a high risk activity as well; many states recognize an enforceable property interest in their image and likeness, a factor that leaves room for litigation issues to be brought by surviving family members.2

The enhanced manipulation of photographs through digital technology has not graced the Internet without consequence. Perhaps first among these concerns is the constant debate over the manner in which child pornography should be excluded from the protections of the First Amendment. With the help of morphing technology, images of young children involved in sexual conduct can be produced through the manipulation of innocent images, and can even be produced independently of involvement with an actual child. Under previous federal laws, such images were constitutionally shielded. However, legal and societal trends have determined that they will ultimately remain excluded from the protections of the First Amendment. The controversy surrounding this topic is primarily concerned with the concept that, with such images banned, digital technology is effectively cast in a negative light, prohibited from allowing an unlimited expression of fantasies because it creates evidentiary problems for prosecutors and court systems.3

Once upon a time, when simulated child pornography issues were first drawing attention, a 1986 report of the commission, organized to investigate child pornography, was widely regarded as being hostile to the First Amendment. The report affirmed that simulated child pornography was actually protected by the Constitution, while at the same time, setting out the justifications for the prohibition of legitimate child pornography, the kind created through the involvement of actual children. An initial rationale for the toleration of simulated child pornography stated that photographs are often an important, if not essential, form of evidence in child molestation prosecutions. Because children are often difficult witnesses, the task is made much simpler if the photographs in question illustrate the offense itself, as opposed illustrating morphed images.3 ...studies suggest that the public does not want to see celebrities exploited through the specter of pornographic simulation.

These feelings concerning the exemption of morphed images from being considered child pornography were reversed when it was later decided that the images did not suffer from the "flaw of vagueness." Although there is a degree of ambiguity involved when specifying participants who appear to be minors, it can be resolved by deciding whether or not the object in question was marketed as child pornography.3

Prompted by such further developments, the issue is far from laying at rest. Just recently, in May of 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that community standards may be put in place and used in order to shield minors from Internet pornography. They concluded that other free-speech "problems" must be resolved before the restrictions in the federal law could take effect, but the justices overruled the previous U.S. appeals court ruling, that the law violated constitutional free-speech protections solely because it relied on community standards to identify which online pictures and writings would be considered as harmful material.4 It looks as though recent feelings surrounding the issue are not nearly as liberal as they have been in the past. Perhaps due to the increasingly offensive subject matter occupying the Internet, the enforcement surrounding such issues is tightening and it seems bound to become even stricter. In April, courts struck down a separate federal law prohibiting "virtual child pornography," once again ruling that it would violate rights to free speech. The battle isn't over yet, however, adult webmasters would be wise to be incredibly cautious when morphing anything resembling a child.

Indeed, morphing images is a potentially hazardous activity! Apart from the obvious dangers involved in morphing images of children to produce sexual content, studies suggest that the public does not want to see celebrities exploited through the specter of pornographic simulation.5 One very legitimate reason is that deceased celebrities have no control over their simulated performances. Regardless whether the reproduced materials are sexual in nature, through the magic of morphing people can be made to do and say things that would never have realistically happened. Artists who create theatrical and musical performances are often concerned about maintaining the consistency with which they are presented, as well as maintaining the quality attributed to their reputations. Morphing makes feats that encourage inaccuracy possible; just imagine, dead actors who could never sing suddenly find that they have mesmerizing voices and vice versa.5

Despite opposition, it appears that enforcement will be applied only to those images peddled as child pornography, for the time being. Similarly, the government has claimed that depictions that are the "exclusive product of illustrators' and artists' imaginations" are unlikely to trigger liability because, as opposed to realistic images, they would not fall within the definition of child pornography. Child pornography actually requires that the depiction 'appear to be' displaying a minor. Regardless of these allegations, there is practically nothing in place to stop a determined prosecutor from going after content he doesn't like.3

That which is unprotected by the First Amendment, is at risk of being pursued - a warning to be heeded especially in regards to this context, but certainly in regards to digital imagery in general.

Amanda Grimm has worked in the adult industry for three years. She specializes in international Web design and usability testing. Amanda holds a BS in Business Information Systems, and can be reached at and