Voice actors rely on their unique vocal sounds for their livelihoods – so what happens when AI copies it without their consent?
With the recent launch of ChatGBT, AI and its potential misuse is an ever-growing talking point.
While artificial intelligence has great potential in many industries, the talent and creatives already occupying these spaces are rightfully concerned.
For many voice actors, the possibility of AI stealing your voice (and your income) has thus far only been hypothetical – the big ‘what if’ that keeps us hung up on the possible misuses and ethical question marks surrounding this topic.
However, some voice actors have not been so lucky, and today we talk to a victim of this theft – Remie Michelle Clarke. Remie is an experienced voice actor and contributor to the Voquent platform, and the big ‘what if’ became a real-life nightmare for her.
Q: What happened, Remie?
Remie: It all started with a simple phone call.
A sound engineer I’ve worked with for over 17 years, fresh from drama school to my current professional years, reached out to me to discuss AI voices. He has worked with me so long, through each stage of my career, and grown to know my voice exceptionally well – and he wanted to know how I started working with AI voice over sites – like Revoicer.com.
What had the process been like? Was I getting booked often? Had it had been worth my while financially?
But there was a slight problem.
I’d never worked with Revoicer.com.
In fact, I’d never even heard of them. Nor did I authorise any site to use my voice in the creation of an AI, which threatens to undermine the industry for human voices. My sound engineer felt confident he could hear my voice in Revoicer.com’s “Olivia” – the artificially created persona with a profile constructed from the internet’s stockpile of stock images.
Here’s a demo of Remie’s performance – compare it with Olivia and decide for yourself!
After listening to myself, I felt confident that my voice was used in the creation of “Olivia” – the resemblance was uncanny and far beyond coincidence. While the name and face were unfamiliar, the voice sounded remarkably like mine – advertised as “a deep, calm, and kind voice, excellent for audiobooks”.
Q: What concerns does this bring forward for your career as a voice actor?
Remie: While there have been times throughout my career that the odd client might try to get away with ‘forgetting’ to tell my agent or me that they’ve re-run usage or expanded it, a simple email or phone call can usually resolve that problem. But this was something different.
Their “Olivia” is available for hire for any project at a startlingly low one-time fee. Using my voice in work that I would never see any payment for, despite doing the work – in a manner of speaking. I shouldn’t need to highlight the trouble this raises for someone who relies on their voice for work.
Q: Have you explored any legal recourse to this issue?
Remie: I sought legal advice. Emboldened by the recent success of Bev Standing, who took on social media giant Tik Tok and won – I figured it would be a straightforward case. I thought they’d take my voice off the site and reimburse me for the trouble. The legal fees were eye watering, but it would be worth it. But the media lawyer I contacted told me my voice could not be copyrighted.
Apparently, in the eyes of the law, I don’t own my voice. How could something so fundamental, personal, and unique to a person, and, in my case, something I built my identity, business, and livelihood around, not belong to me? And how would I prove that something as amorphous and non-physical as my voice could only be mine and no one else’s? Is Revoicer even breaking any laws in stealing what is inherently mine?
Although the voice issuing out under the character ‘Olivia’ sounded unmistakably like mine, it also sounded like it had been tampered with. Like a waxwork figure of a celebrity in Madam Tussauds, it was a good likeness without being genuinely identical. What impact do such small changes – a semitone lower or higher, a certain lack of clarity – impact whether or not this voice still belongs to its proper owner?
Q: Why do you think voice over is a target of AI replication?
Remie: Voice over, in its purest form, is an incognito profession. Most voices we hear on our television and radio adverts, reading our audiobooks, teaching us our educational modules, informing us about government and health schemes, and, frankly, irritating us when they rudely interrupt our Spotify playlists, are voices we could never place, nor name.
Q: So anonymity is a significant factor?
Remie: No company would ever dream of stealing the voice of Morgan Freeman or Nicole Kidman – they’re going after the quiet voice over artist, the jobbing voice actor, who carries their morning coffee up the stairs or down the garden path to their vocal booth every day, plugs in their equipment, and shows up faithfully for rounds of auditions, gigs large and small from the local to the international, and their regular clients.
It’s not always glamorous or riveting: often it’s more Primark internal than Pixar. But glamorous or not, my voice is still my voice and my profession, and I couldn’t simply let them get away with it. My voice might not be copyrightable material, but I still wanted to claim performance theft and loss of earnings.
Q: Did you find any success?
Remie: Revoicer.com have no registered address accessible anywhere online. Nowhere on the contact page or at the site footer could a business address be found. So, I contacted them through their support ticket system, and when I finally got a response, I was told flatly, ‘we can’t help you with that.’
Why? Because they outsource their payment processing system to another company. With no business address to serve a legal letter to, I wondered if this was an intentional business model – a start-up (they only seem to have been in business since 2021 as far as I can see online) who willingly seeks out voices they can rip and use on their platform, earning money from each sign-up without any of the pesky overheads of actually paying the people who make their business possible. With so many of the usual legal avenues intentionally blocked by Revoicer, how could I get them to stop?
Q: So, what’s your next course of action?
Remie: I am still figuring out the best course of action. This article is one of the routes I am taking – media. Bringing awareness to this issue may help – the more voice actors that can group together against companies profiting from our work, the less likely more companies like this will spring up. Perhaps we can even encourage prospective users of sites like Revoicer to think twice about the human impact of using unregulated AI sites to voice their projects – maybe they’ll even consider booking an actual human instead.
So, my voice is still up on Revoicer until I can find a way to protect my asset and livelihood with the current legal system. Something needs to change – voice over artists and their voices need to be recognised as holders of intellectual and artistic copyright, or the businesses of hundreds of thousands of performers worldwide could potentially be at risk, all because of a legal loophole that is out of date with the rapid technological advances we are all living through. Admittedly, tech is changing and expanding quicker than we might even be able to keep up with, but some attempts to do so need to be made to ensure that the skills and talents of so many aren’t exploited for financial gain.
Remie sharing her story is eye-opening to the possibilities that Artificial voices are making realities. In 2023, we have a lot to be concerned about with AI voice over and how it will irreversibly alter how countless industries work. AI can work in tandem with existing creative mediums or to disrupt and displace creatives. Staying updated and vigilant is crucial in deciding whether AI is a tool for voices or a weapon against them.
Voquent takes this discussion seriously, and we are working on various resources and articles regarding it in the coming weeks. If you have any stories to offer or want to share your thoughts – tweet us @voquent – we would love to hear what you have to say.
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