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Actors Hit AI Voice Cloning Company With Class Action Lawsuit

Actors Hit AI Voice Cloning Company With Class Action Lawsuit

Voiceover actor Paul Lehrman was at his friend’s house in 2022 when a YouTube video was pulled up from a channel called Military News about Russia’s advance into Ukraine. He immediately recognized the voice as his own, though he never contracted with the channel operator for use of his likeness.

“It was my voice dictating the conflict and talking about weapons,” Lehrman says. “These are words I never said.”

A year later, he was on his way to a doctor’s appointment when he says he again stumbled upon his voice in a podcast about Hollywood’s dual strikes in which a generative artificial intelligence text-to-speech tool was used to answers questions about the dangers of the technology. That’s when he and his wife Linnea Sage, also a voiceover actor who suspects her voice was stolen in a similar manner, reached out to an attorney. 

On Thursday, they sued Berkeley-based AI startup LOVO in a proposed class action filed in New York federal court accusing the company of misappropriating their voices, as well as those of A-list talent such as Scarlett Johansson, Ariana Grande and Conan O’Brien. It’s believed to the first lawsuit against an AI firm over the use of likenesses to train an AI system and marks a growing rift between creators and companies alleged to indiscriminately hoover troves of data to power their technology.

The lawsuit seeks to represent other voiceover artists who believe their voices were misappropriated by LOVO, which didn’t respond to a request for comment. It also looks to obtain a court order blocking the company from continuing to undercut their work.

The actors join a growing list of rights holders that include authors, artists and publications who’ve taken to court over what they argue is the unauthorized and uncompensated theft of their works and likenesses to fuel a multibillion dollar industry.

SAG-AFTRA general counsel Jeffrey Bennett says the misconduct alleged in the lawsuit is “the type of thing we’re going to see more of as people fail to understand that there are rights that exist in voices.” The union maintains that training AI systems on members’ likenesses without consent is a violation of their rights.

Thursday’s lawsuit, which centers on an alleged violation of New York’s right of publicity law, says LOVO sells its services using “stolen property” and falsely “represents that it has the legal right to market these voices” when it doesn’t.

In 2020, Lehrman was contacted by an unidentified user, who he later learned was a LOVO employee, on freelance services platform Fiverr to provide voiceover services, according to the complaint. When he inquired further, he was allegedly told that his voice would be “used for academic research purposes only.” Lerhman, who was paid $1,200, was assured in another message that it “will not be used for anything else.”

But two years later, the lawsuit claims that he recognized his voice on the YouTube channel called Military News, which has more than 336,000 subscribers, on a video about Russian weapons. “Then, on or about June 13, 2023, Mr. Lehrman heard his voice being used on a podcast episode of ‘Deadline Strike Talk,’” the complaint, which notes that he wasn’t compensated for the use, states.

According to the complaint, LOVO marketed his allegedly misappropriated voice as part of its subscription service under the stage name “Kyle Snow.” The lawsuit states, “His voice was the default voice for the software; his voice was also touted as one of the five best text-to-speech voices, and it was used to advertise and explain the product.”

Sage, a voiceover artist of 14 years known for her work in Marvel video games, was similarly offered a job on Fiverr in 2019 to produce test scripts for radio ads. Like Lerhman, she was told that her voice “will only be consumed internally, so will not require rights of any sort,” the lawsuit says.

But in 2023, Sage alleges she discovered that LOVO had been using her voice as part of its subscription business under the name “Sally Coleman.”

While LOVO claims that its AI system was trained on thousands of voices, the lawsuit claims that the voices of “Kyle Snow” and “Sally Coleman” are distinctly those of Lehrman and Sage respectively.

“The voices of other LOVO voice options are undoubtedly the voices of other class Plaintiffs who neither gave their authorization to use their voice – for either teaching Genny, use by LOVO, or sale by LOVO as part of its service – and were never properly compensated,” writes Steve Cohen, a lawyer for the actors, in the complaint.

Lehrman, who has over a decade of experience as a voiceover artist under his belt and is best known for his roles in NBC’s New Amsterdam CBS’s Blue Bloods, estimates that he’s seen a decline of roughly 50 percent in his work since last year. He stresses that the issue is not only that he’s getting less job opportunities but the “degradation of my reputation.”

“My voice is literally saying things I wouldn’t say with brands I wouldn’t work with in places I wouldn’t want to be placed,” he explains. “In addition, I don’t have control of the nuance of the artistic delivery.”

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Sage’s concerns are rooted in potentially being displaced from Hollywood altogether with the rise of AI voice tools. If misappropriation of her voice is allowed to continue from companies like LOVO, she warns “99 percent of the work that voiceover artists do will be replaced by AI voices.”

“I haven’t made it big, but I’ve been working with so many other hard workers in this industry for my whole adult life,” she adds.

For SAG-AFTRA, Bennett says this lawsuit “puts companies on notice that you need to know what rights you’re getting and what you want to get.” He urges members not to accept overbroad contract language handing over rights in perpetuity.

“Now, we live in world where we can clone somebody’s voice and likeness,” Bennet explains. “Those overbroad provisions are incredibly dangerous now. You’ve potentially given up rights and consented to be cloned.”

Due to the rise of AI services that allow users to replicate actors’ likenesses, the union has been advocating for a federal right of publicity law. There are currently no federal laws covering the use of AI to mimic someone’s voice. A patchwork of state right of publicity laws has filled the void, but there’s little recourse in states that have not passed such statutes.

“The most significant thing to me about a federal voice and likeness law is the creation of intellectual property right at federal level of voice and likeness,” Bennett says. “If there are IP rights at the federal level, you’ve given yourself the ability to go after online instances of use and demand that it come down.”

While the class action seeks to represent talent whose voices were used to train LOVO’s AI system, as well as those whose voices were misappropriated, it has the potential to expand to A-list talent. The company also promotes its services using “barely-disguised images and names” of celebrities, such as “Ariana Venti,” “Barack Yo Mama” and “Cocoon O’Brien.” The company advertises to users that they can “clone any voice,” though it qualifies that they “cannot use this cloned voice for imitation of celebrities, so only use this tool for personal entertainment purposes.”

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