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Suppose person A offers paid voiceover services, and is a popular voiceover artist. Person B wants person A's voice for their revenue-generating internet video projects, because they know it will offer a significant profits-boost. It is legally all right for person B to synthesize person A's voice (without their knowledge or consent) using a neural net and use that audio clip for the videos? That is, are people's voices copyrighted?

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    In case the answer is "no," you might also want to ask whether there is any other protection or property right in a person's voice, perhaps personality rights.
    – phoog
    Jun 17 at 9:34
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    In Britain I'm fairly sure there is a crime of "personation" - where you pretend to be someone else with intent to deceive. I would assume that it is also a civil tort as well so that if the one impersonated can show evidence of damage, they will have a case against the impersonator for recompense.
    – WS2
    Jun 17 at 10:49
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    I'd guess it's the same as using their image: no. Jun 17 at 16:45
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    No. Read about the development of vocaloids.
    – DKNguyen
    Jun 17 at 18:05
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    @Mazura this was in 2019, Two Minute Papers - Google's AI Clones Your Voice After Listening for 5 Seconds! 🤐 (YouTube video)
    – Andrew T.
    Jun 18 at 9:11

3 Answers 3

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Not copyright as such because that is about protecting a 'work' — a voice is not a 'work'. As the court said in one of the following examples, "A voice is not copyrightable. The sounds are not 'fixed.'"

(You could copyright a roar or a yell — some kind of fixed arrangement of sound(s).)

But some jurisdictions have recognised property rights in voices and/or that the voice is protected by the person's 'right of publicity' (the right to control the commercial exploitation of their identity, of which the voice is a part). For example:

Bette Wins Ruling In ‘Sound-Alike’ Lawsuit - AP News

June 23, 1988

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ A federal appeals court has reinstated a lawsuit filed by entertainer Bette Midler after an advertising agency allegedly tried to duplicate her voice and singing style in one of its ad campaigns.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled Wednesday that Midler could pursue her suit against the Ford Motor Co. and the Young & Rubicam advertising agency. The court said certain personal attributes - such as a voice - can be considered property rights, protected by state law.

...

U.S. District Judge Ferdinand Fernandez said Young & Rubicam acted like ″the average thief″ but dismissed Midler’s suit, saying no law prohibits imitation of a singer’s voice.

But the appeals court disagreed.

"A voice is as distinctive and personal as a face,″ the appeals court said. ″When a distinctive voice of a professional singer is widely known and is deliberately imitated in order to sell a product, the sellers have appropriated what is not theirs."

judgment in Midler v Ford

Another case in the US is Waits v Frito-Lay Inc. The US Court of Appeal found that a radio commercial's imitation of the voice of Tom Waits constituted a civil tort, "voice misappropriation".

I'm not aware of any cases involving computer synthesis of voices.

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    I'll just add that Jess Harnell, lead singer of Rock Sugar, is unable to release music commercially because Steve Perry sued them over imitating his voice in his mashups (see loudwire.com/voice-actor-jess-harnell-interview-band-sued); Jun 18 at 21:00
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    Over half of the U.S. states recognize "right of publicity" while a few only recognize "celebrity rights" which is probably more limited to those with a recognized public persona. California Civil Code § 3344, provides it is unlawful, for the purpose of advertising or selling, to knowingly use another’ voice or likeness without that person’s prior consent. The only exception might be in cases where the other party has a right to the likeness, for example, they naturally look like the other or sound like the other. Achieving this by the use of AI is a distinction without a difference.
    – kisspuska
    Jun 20 at 7:23
  • 1/2 A better explanation than "A voice is not copyrightable. The sounds are not 'fixed.'" of the 9th Circuit would be that a voice is the abstract of one's oral sound production determined by anatomic constraints as well as the intricate mostly unconscious and involuntarily adapted and applied rules of oral production. This abstract may not be the subject of copy right; the sound of one's voice recorded, for example, may be. An interesting thought experiment could be whether, if set forth in human or computer language, one's voice abstract could be the subject of copy right. […]
    – kisspuska
    Jun 20 at 7:32
  • 2/3 In that case, feeding that information to a computer which then could reproduce another line of recorded speech according to the abstract, the imitated sound product of the abstract voice could — on top of under the above theories — be deemed derivative work. The California publicity law provides for a 50 year post-mortem protection period, but by decoding the abstract of one's voice stored on a tangible medium, and getting it copyrighted as the digital data of the voice abstract, the protection as derivative work of one's voice could be extended up to 95 post-mortem years, + © is global.
    – kisspuska
    Jun 20 at 7:39
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    @Polygnome well, in theory that is so, and also in most practical situations. But there are always weird extreme cases. Like, if your family is from some Indian community that happens to use swastika symbols a lot, you may find that you're not allowed in Germany to publicly wear the clothes you inherited from your grandparents. “Having a voice like Tom Waits” is such a case. Anyway it's only a very mild discrimination that arises from it: it's not that you aren't allowed to use your voice even commercially, it's just that you must do it in a way that makes it clear you're not Tom Waits. Jun 21 at 22:37
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Copyright is the least of B's concerns

Voice, like visual appearance, is an inherent trait of a person. It is not a creative work (let's not dive into philosophy here about creation of human beings). It simply cannot be protected by copyright.

However, that doesn't automatically mean that B can synthesise and publish/make money on A's voice

without their knowledge or consent

— unless B explicitly, prominently and audibly warns their audience that this is not real A's voice and A has actually nothing to do with voicing it.

Such a warning is required as it is difficult to tell AI voice imitation from the real voice owner voicing it, and, by default, the audience will assume it is real A's voice. This is the main B's concern because, unless the warning is given:

  • B would effectively be misleading their customers. For many customers (not all of course), the main reason for subscribing/purchasing the media would be the fact that it is real A speaking/signing. If these customers knew it was not the case, they would skip;
  • B could make A's voice speak to express views or "testify" facts that A themselves would never pronounce. Such a misuse could damage A's reputation and, hence, be subject of a claim/lawsuit.
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  • "it is difficult to tell AI voice imitation from the real voice owner voicing it" - I wasn't aware we could do that yet. Aren't all the 'deep fakes' voiceless?
    – Mazura
    Jun 18 at 2:56
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    @Mazura People making deep fakes indeed rarely bother imitating the voice — they primarily care about the visual part. But this doesn't mean that voice imitation tech is not there. In fact, it is much easier than visuals, and decent (although not perfect) voice imitation tech emerged long before AI. Now with AI it's just become impeccable (although, again, deep fake makers often don't bother using it).
    – Greendrake
    Jun 18 at 3:37
  • "Can I change Siri's voice to Morgan Freeman?" - "Unless you can afford to pay the veteran Hollywood actor, it is pretty much impossible to switch Siri's voice to Morgan Freeman's." - That's the result from googling make siri sound like. If it was technically possible, there'd be an app for that. I presume it isn't and that's why there's no laws against it, but there will be, just like how it became illegal to 'sample' something.
    – Mazura
    Jun 18 at 3:54
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    @Mazura It has been possible at least since mid 90s to transform one's voice into voice sounding very much like someone's else. It was just some smart sound wave processing algorithm, not an AI. Now there isn't an app that makes Siri sound like Morgan Freeman apparently just because he won't approve it and those who would create such an app are afraid of possibly being sued.
    – Greendrake
    Jun 18 at 4:04
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    There is this app, OTOH: futurism.com/the-byte/app-morgan-freeman-voice-real-time Jun 18 at 4:10
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"AI" is a function of its training set, which would contain copyrighted data that isn't licensed for that use.

The AI toys we get to see right now are in kind of a legal limbo, because this hasn't been litigated yet, but my initial interpretation is that this is currently merely tolerated by rightsholders, and there is a bit of a rush to create an AI product that is useful enough to cause backlash when it is eventually regulated.

In software development, the use of tools like GitHub Copilot is controversial, because these neural nets often reproduce fragments of the training set, which consists of mostly open source software that has been released under various licenses, some of which stipulate terms under which derived works may be produced.

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