Human Voice Gaining Protection in Confronting Generative AI


Last week, Tennessee passed the ELVIS Act to expand its statutory right of publicity (ROP) law to include voice as a protected aspect of an individual’s “likeness.” In response to artificial intelligence enabling more precise replication of specific, human sounding voices, it is little surprise that the music powerhouse state has taken swift action to explicitly include voice among the property rights protected by its ROP statute. With $9.7 billion output to the Nashville region alone by the music industry, Tennessee lawmakers took less than three months to introduce and pass the Ensuring Likeness, Voice, and Image Security (ELVIS) Act, and they could not have been luckier to have the acronym work so perfectly!

Tennessee’s existing ROP law already proscribed unlicensed use of “likeness” for a wide range of commercial purposes, and the ELVIS amendments create a civil action of potential liability for publication, performance, or transmission, or for making available an algorithm, software, tool, et al. with the primary purpose or function of producing an unauthorized “likeness.” This addition is notable because it creates a potential liability for the generative AI developer whose interest may be producing the next Mary Kutter song without Mary Kutter.

Although Tennessee is not the first state to include voice in the definition of “likeness” for the purpose of ROP law, the support from the music industry is indicative that the ELVIS Act is the first to directly confront the prospect of generative AI replicating artists without consent. We applaud Tennessee’s swift and thoughtful bipartisan leadership against unconsented AI deepfakes and voice clones and look forward to additional states and the US Congress moving quickly to protect the unique humanity and individuality of all Americans,” stated Mitch Glazier, chairman and CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America.

Widening the lens to all Americans and early proposals for a federal right of publicity, the prospect of generative AI being used either to replicate a “likeness” that is not yet recognizable; or to produce synthetic “performers” to displace humans are two challenges not easily addressed by traditional ROP doctrines. Historically, the application of these various laws is clearest when the “likeness” of a celebrity or public figure is used for commercial advertising or endorsement. For instance, non-famous persons, even in states with strong ROP statutes, have a higher burden to show reputational harm.

Thus, vesting a property right in one’s voice is a step in the right direction, but it is the various uses of a “likeness” leading to causes of action that get tricky. In its article about the ELVIS Act, Billboard cites a speech by president and CEO of National Music Publishers Association (NMPA) David Israelite stating that the much larger motion picture industry opposes a federal right of publicity. I addressed some of the reasonable concerns motion picture producers might raise with legislation proscribing the use of generative AI for “expressive purposes,” and wherever one leans on these questions, artificial voice exemplifies the difficult nature of adopting policies around generative AI in the creative industries.

As a general view, I stand with creators who see the potential for generative AI to displace human creators and maintain that there is nothing to be gained—culturally or economically—in a future creative sector with dramatically fewer professionals. But the ELVIS Act itself highlights the challenge of writing policy that looks beyond the current population of famous or semi-famous professionals. In this context, perhaps the audiobook narrators provide some insight. I’ve talked to several voice actor friends and colleagues in recent months, and after explaining why copyright doesn’t typically protect their interests and we turn to the subject of ROP, I then disappoint them further, explaining why those laws don’t quite address the prospect of scraping voice recordings to train a generative AI.

Award-Winning Book Narrator Encounters Her Virtual Self?

I recently spoke to audiobook narrator Hillary Huber, who discovered that her voice may be the unauthorized source of a Virtual Voice, a service provided to self-published authors on the Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) platform. The Virtual Voice concept uses synthetic voice technology to enable the self-published author of a modestly selling title to create an audiobook she could otherwise not afford to produce. But Virtual Voice, a feature of Amazon+ Publishing, naturally begs two questions:  first, whose voices are used to train the AI? And second, is the model a harbinger of doom for professional book narrators throughout the industry?

Huber was alerted to the possibility of her vocal doppelganger by a friend sharing links to several books on the KDP platform and telling her, “This is your voice!”  But, as Huber explained to me, “Because our own voices never sound the same to ourselves as to others, I asked several colleagues to weigh in, and they were unanimous in their opinion that it was a version of me—not just the sound, but also certain markers like cadence and inflection.”

To my ear, which has not been trained on the more than 700 books Huber has narrated, I would describe the Virtual Voice sample as sounding either like a mediocre computer rendering of her, or like a recording of her voice with a computerized filter distorting the sound. The latter, of course, did not occur because Huber did not narrate the book in question, but whether Virtual Voice was “trained” without license using the voices of professional narrators like Huber and her colleagues is a question worth asking.

More broadly, as a matter of law and policy, the book narration business is perhaps instructive to other creators, including other voice actors, musical performers, et al. One difficulty, it seems, lies in distinguishing among the unknown, the semi-famous, and the famous, and Huber confirmed for me that the book narration world is indeed segmented into these three strata. Many unknown narrators earn modest incomes recording a broad range of modestly selling audiobooks; a small group of regulars like Huber can earn middle-class incomes reading more popular books; and, of course, celebrities are occasionally paid whatever they can negotiate to read bestsellers. Naturally, it is the narrator whose name and voice may not be widely recognizable, even among avid book listeners, who is most anxious about the prospect of losing her job to generative AI.

Additionally, when I asked Huber if she knew how many narrators are in her group I called the “recognizable regulars,” her guess was a surprisingly low number, well below 100 narrators. I figured the number would be small, but not that small, and this raises real concerns about the narration business. For one thing, Congress isn’t motivated to protect a handful of jobs. For another, even if the number were a few hundred voices producing a training dataset of, say, one-million popular books, that seems like a comparatively light task for a generative AI developer to create enough variety in synthetic voices to replace the narration workforce.

In that regard, while it may be tempting for some book narrators to license the use of their voices for a purpose like Virtual Voice, it is impossible to see how this does not very quickly obviate the need for any human narrators to produce audiobooks, or even license their voices for generative AI for long. At a certain threshold, the AI is expected to self-train, suggesting that a handful of narrators might obtain licensing deals one time and then nobody will ever do so again.

Assuming that’s a fair summary, some might ask why Congress should consider a provision like the ELVIS Act as a starting point for a federal ROP law with an aim to protect more than today’s musical performers. In my view, the answer goes back to considering future generations of creators. If there is one consistent feature in Big Tech’s influence on the creative sector, it is that the major platforms developed thus far are highly effective at cannibalizing existing works of great value while shrinking opportunities for new creators at every level.

If the U.S. is going to continue to foster new generations of professional creators, it is necessary that policy in this area does not focus too narrowly on the current population of recognizable and famous creators. Here, although copyright law does not apply to the property rights in “likeness,” its foundational purpose to “promote progress” might serve as a guiding principle in crafting new federal laws that vest property rights in our images, names, and voices.

Photo by: Andrew282

David Newhoff
David is an author, communications professional, and copyright advocate. After more than 20 years providing creative services and consulting in corporate communications, he shifted his attention to law and policy, beginning with advocacy of copyright and the value of creative professionals to America’s economy, core principles, and culture.

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