This AI Deal Will Let Actors License Digital Voice Replicas

Fast-changing AI technology was a major issue in last year's Hollywood strike. A new agreement advances the conversation in a key way.

Gael Cooper
CNET editor Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, a journalist and pop-culture junkie, is co-author of "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s," as well as "The Totally Sweet '90s." She's been a journalist since 1989, working at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine, Twin Cities Sidewalk, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and NBC News Digital. She's Gen X in birthdate, word and deed. If Marathon candy bars ever come back, she'll be first in line.
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Gael Cooper
3 min read
Conceptual image of AI mimicking a human voice
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SAG-AFTRA, the world's largest labor union representing performers, announced Tuesday at CES 2024 that it has signed an agreement with artificial intelligence voice technology company Replica Studios. The agreement will allow union members to license digital replicas of their voices for use in video games.

As AI expands into more areas of life, its ability to mimic famous voices has been controversial. In 2023, an artist who goes by the name Ghostwriter released Heart on My Sleeve, a song that uses generative AI to mimic the voices of Drake and The Weeknd, though apparently neither of those stars had anything to do with the track. That song sparked a debate about Grammy eligibility, and Ghostwriter said at the time that he believed artists should financially benefit if AI copies their distinct voices. 

Tuesday's announcement marks the first time a group such as SAG-AFTRA has attempted to codify consent and compensation for AI replicas of performer voices.

AI and the Hollywood strike

AI was a major issue in the union's 2023 strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which saw actors join already-striking writers on the picket lines in July. The strike ran until November, and was the longest movie and television strike in the union's 90-year history. As a result, studios are now required to obtain consent from and pay actors for use of their AI-generated likenesses.

"Artificial intelligence has dominated the headlines, and for most performers, the best protection against the unauthorized digital simulation of their voice, likeness and/or performance is a SAG-AFTRA contract," union president and actor Fran Drescher said in a statement Tuesday. SAG-AFTRA has over 160,000 members.

National executive director and chief SAG-AFTRA negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland said at CES that the union had been involved with AI issues for almost a decade.

Replica Studios CEO Shreyas Nivas, who signed the agreement with Crabtree-Ireland at CES, called the agreement "groundbreaking" in a post on LinkedIn.

"This partnership will allow voice actors to safely explore new opportunities for their digital voice replicas while establishing protections around consent, contracts and compensation," Nivas wrote. It also includes stated conditions for safe storage of such digital assets.

A turnaround for studios on AI

In a podcast that aired in December, SAG-AFTRA general counsel Jeffrey Bennett said that studios had earlier claimed they did not need performers' consent to replicate their voices with AI.

"Before we started negotiating these terms, the position of the studios was [that] they did not need consent to create replicas," Bennett said. "So, if you fast-forward from the position that they took as early as January 2023 to the position we now have with these contract terms and some of the legislation that's coming, we have flipped that whole narrative on its head. They recognize now they can't do this without consent."

While this agreement is specifically about video games, Crabtree-Ireland said other agreements might be reached for other kinds of vocal performances, such as music and TV commercials. 

The agreement does not cover the use of performer voices to train large language models, Crabtree-Ireland said. That training has come under fire from notable figures such as Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, who, along with other authors, has sued artificial intelligence company OpenAI for allegedly using his published works to train the AI technology that powers generative AI chatbot ChatGPT.

Crabtree-Ireland also said he saw no reason why the estates of dead performers could not agree to the use of those voices under the new licensing agreement.

Editors' note: CNET is using an AI engine to help create some stories. For more, see this post.