SAG-AFTRA, the world’s largest labor union representing performers, announced on 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 continues to expand into more areas of life, its ability to mimic famous voices has become 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 musicians Drake and The Weeknd, though apparently neither of those stars had anything to do with it. That song sparked a debate about whether it should be eligible for a Grammy Award, and Ghostwriter said at the time that he believes artists should financially benefit if AI copies their distinct voices. 

But this is the first time a group such as SAG-AFTRA has attempted to codify consent and compensation concerning the use of AI mimicking 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 performers 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 likeness.

“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,” said union president and actor Fran Drescher in a statement Tuesday. SAG-AFTRA has over 160,000 members.

National executive director and chief SAG-AFTRA negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland said at a press conference held at CES in Las Vegas 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 the press conference, 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.

Turnaround for the 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 in other aspects of vocal performance, such as music and TV commercials. 

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

Crabtree-Ireland also said he saw no reason why the estates of deceased 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.

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