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Bruce Willis may lose right to his own voice to Russian deepfake company

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That’s what his agent told the press after a series of widespread reports said the actor had entered a unique agreement with a deepfake company to replicate his likeness via artificial intelligence in upcoming movies. There is, however, broader uncertainty around using famous faces and voices, and the legalities stand to get messier as more studios opt to use AI to replicate celebrity likenesses (and sounds) in films and commercials.

The confusion about the Die Hard star seems to have come from this television ad last year:      

The actor has denied entering into any sort of long-standing contract with Deepcake, a Russian outfit that says it makes digital replicas of celebrities. Deepcake confirmed to me that there had been a misunderstanding. “Deepcake doesn’t own any rights to the digital twin the company creates,” a spokeswoman for the firm said. 

Additionally, the muddle probably ensued because Willis has been diagnosed with aphasia, a disorder that impacts speech. In March, he had announced his retirement from acting. AI can theoretically fix this by training itself on older recordings of his voice and synthesizing that into new content. It’s been done for other prominent actors but there’s no plan to do this for Willis.

Artists say they are confused by contracts for doing AI-linked voice work, according to Equity UK, a union for British actors and voice artists. Could a player as big as Willis lose the right not just to his face but to his own voice — even as illness robs him of it?

The issue at heart is that, technically, faces and voice can be replicated by AI forever. “Contract provisions [for AI work] often request that performers sign away their rights in perpetuity,” says Liam Budd, policy officer for Equity. In April, the union launched a campaign to strengthen performers rights amid a “huge growth of AI across the entertainment industry,” Budd said, adding that 93% of voice actors saw AI as a threat to their employment.

To make matters more challenging, performers are often asked to sign non-disclosure agreements for AI work and find their contract terms highly confusing. Voice actors are also offered one-off payments for their labor, even when their voices will be used continually elsewhere, Budd said.

Much of the growth in AI work has been in video games and TV commercials. In India, for instance, Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan had his voice and face replicated in a Cadbury’s ad more than 40,000 different times, to allow him to mention an array of local businesses. 

That poses a tantalizing prospect to big-name actors and studios: AI can help spread their likenesses and “brands” far and wide, potentially allowing them to do more work when they don’t have the time.

“We have cases where famous voice actors and big motivational speakers want to scale themselves to different regions,” says Alex Serdiuk, the Chief Executive of Respeecher, a Ukrainian AI firm that de-aged the voices of Mark Hamill and James Earl Jones for recent releases of the Star Wars franchise. Respeecher’s technology can also convert a person’s speech into different languages. “High-profile personalities are growing their own brand and IP, and using the technology, they can increase the audience they cover,” Serdiuk added.

That’s problematic as well as profitable. Well-established players in the industry can capitalize on the technology to further grow their brands, while smaller, lesser-known artists are at risk of being unfairly exploited. At present, there are no clear laws protecting people against the unauthorized, AI synthesis of a person’s face or voice or performance.

When Equity brought this up with the British government, it was told that the UK’s upcoming Online Safety law would be the legal framework they needed, according to Budd. But that’s a naive misreading of the forthcoming law, which is aimed at protecting people against online harassment, and not protecting their intellectual property in the field of entertainment.

One potential resolution: Equity says it plans to reach out to AI firms to try and establish collective bargaining agreements and better terms and conditions for artists who do AI work. The union wouldn’t comment on which companies it is talking to, and didn’t mention any names like Respeecher. For its part, the Ukranian company said it had been talking to unions and was open to having conversations with industry groups about frameworks for payment. 

Such agreements would add an unusual, new dynamic to the established relationship between actors, unions and production studios, which has led to industrial action in the past. How the murky payment model pans out for artists may depend on union outreach, and the response of AI firms. But it will probably take time for those discussions to gain traction, and the rights of artists from Bruce Willis and Shah Rukh Khan to the uncelebrated voice actors will only get murkier.

Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. A former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes, she is author of “We Are Anonymous”.

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