Hollywood stars’ estates agree to the use of their voices with AI

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Actress Judy Garland never recorded her voice to read an audiobook of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but you’ll soon be able to hear her rendition of the children’s novel that inspired the movie nonetheless.

Earlier this week, AI company ElevenLabs said it is bringing digitally produced celebrity voice-overs of deceased actors, including Garland, James Dean and Burt Reynolds, to its newly launched Reader app. The company said the app takes articles, PDF, ePub, newsletters, e-books or any other text on your phone and turns it into voice-overs.

“We deeply respect their legacy and are honored to have their voices as part of our platform,” said Dustin Blank, head of partnerships at ElevenLabs. “Adding them to our growing list of narrators marks a major step forward in our mission of making content accessible in any language and voice.”

The company said it made deals with the estates of the actors whose voices are being used, but did not share details about compensation. The effort shows the potential of artificial intelligence for Hollywood but also sets a precedent for licensing and working with estates. It also comes at a time when the technology has grown by leaps and bounds, particularly in its ability to create images, text and sound, making it easy for anyone to create a version of someone’s voice saying something they never did.

That, in turn, has raised questions in creative industries such as journalism and film about how artificial intelligence can — or even should — be used.

ElevenLabs previously made headlines earlier this year when its tool was reportedly used to create a fake robocall from President Joe Biden urging people not to vote in New Hampshire’s presidential primary.

The partnership with the stars’ estates comes two months after ChatGPT-maker OpenAI came under fire after introducing a synthetic voice that was eerily similar to Scarlett Johansson’s character in the film “Her.” Johansson said in a statement shared with CNN that she was “shocked, angered and in disbelief” that the company would use her likeliness likeness after she turned down a partnership opportunity with OpenAI.

Although a person can’t copyright their own voice, it’s possible to copyright a recording, according to David Gunkel, a professor at the department of communications at Northern Illinois University who tracks AI in media and entertainment. The AI is trained on old recordings and those recordings are under copyright.

“ElevenLabs’ new partnerships are all well within the realm of what the law allows,” he said. “An estate will get a considerable amount of money from licensing and agreements. It’s not unlike a company negotiating a copyright deal to use a popular song by Queen in an ad. The record company also could in theory say no, no matter how much money they’re offered.”

Bern Elliot, a vice president and analyst at market research firm Gartner, said AI models can now be trained on fewer audio recordings; very little is needed to capture tone, speech patterns and other elements, whether it’s for a celebrity or an everyday person.

“The bigger concern is determining what the owner of those recordings can or can’t do to monetize the voice,” he said.

Media companies are also ramping up their use of AI for voiceovers. Last week, NBC announced it is bringing an AI-version version of famed sportscaster Al Michaels back to the Olympics this summer, in daily recaps on its Peacock streaming platform. An NBC spokesperson told CNN that Michaels is being compensated for his involvement.

It’s unclear, however, how AI versions of well-known voices will be received by mass audiences and if it will raise concerns around authenticity.

“We don’t know yet the supposed market for these types of things but you can already see with audiobooks that ones read by recognizable voices and celebrities are a hot commodity,” Gunkel said. “If there’s a way to have a celebrity do all kinds of content and not voice it themselves, that could open up the market even wider.”

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