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Voice Actors Sue Company Whose A.I. Sounds Like Them


Last summer, as they drove to a doctor’s appointment near their home in Manhattan, Paul Lehrman and Linnea Sage listened to a podcast about the rise of artificial intelligence and the threat it posed to the livelihoods of writers, actors and other entertainment professionals.

The topic was particularly important to the young married couple. They made their living as voice actors, and A.I. technologies were beginning to generate voices that sounded like the real thing.

But the podcast had an unexpected twist. To underline the threat from A.I., the host conducted a lengthy interview with a talking chatbot named Poe. It sounded just like Mr. Lehrman.

“He was interviewing my voice about the dangers of A.I. and the harms it might have on the entertainment industry,” Mr. Lehrman said. “We pulled the car over and sat there in absolute disbelief, trying to figure out what just happened and what we should do.”

Mr. Lehrman and Ms. Sage are now suing the company that created the bot’s voice. They claim that Lovo, a start-up in Berkeley, Calif., illegally used recordings of their voices to create technology that can compete with their voice work. After hearing a clone of Mr. Lehrman’s voice on the podcast, the couple discovered that Lovo had created a clone of Ms. Sage’s voice, too.

The couple join a growing number of artists, publishers, computer programmers and other creators who have sued the makers of A.I. technologies, arguing that these companies used their work without permission in creating tools that could ultimately replace them in the job market. (The New York Times sued two of the companies, OpenAI and its partner, Microsoft, in December, accusing them of using its copyrighted news articles in building their online chatbots.)

In their suit, filed in federal court in Manhattan on Thursday, the couple said anonymous Lovo employees had paid them for a few voice clips in 2019 and 2020 without disclosing how the clips would be used.

They say Lovo, which was founded in 2019, is violating federal trademark law and several state privacy laws by promoting clones of their voices. The suit seeks class-action status, with Mr. Lehrman and Ms. Sage inviting other voice actors to join it.

“We don’t know how many other people have been affected,” their lawyer, Steve Cohen, said.

Lovo denies the claims in the suit, said David Case, a lawyer representing the company. He added that if all individuals who provided voice recordings to Lovo gave their consent, “then there is not a problem.”

Tom Lee, the company’s chief executive, said in a podcast episode last year that Lovo now offered a revenue sharing program that allowed voice actors to help the company create voice clones of themselves and receive a cut of the money made by those clones.

The suit appears to be the first of its kind, said Jeffrey Bennett, general counsel for SAG-AFTRA, the labor union that represents 160,000 media professionals worldwide.

“This suit will show people — particularly technology companies — that there are rights that exist in your voice, that there is an entire group of people out there who make their living using their voice,” he said.

In 2019, Mr. Lehrman and Ms. Sage were promoting themselves as voice actors on Fiverr, a website where freelance professionals can advertise their work. Through this online marketplace, they were often asked to provide voice work for commercials, radio ads, online videos, video games and other media.

That year, Ms. Sage was contacted by an anonymous person who paid her $400 to record several radio scripts and explained that the recordings would not be used for public purposes, according to correspondence cited by the suit.

“These are test scripts for radio ads,” the anonymous person said, according to the suit. “They will not be disclosed externally, and will only be consumed internally, so will not require rights of any sort.”

Seven months later, another unidentified person contacted Mr. Lehrman about similar work. Mr. Lehrman, who also works as a television and movie actor, asked how the clips would be used. The person said multiple times that they would be used only for research and academic purposes, according to correspondence cited in the suit. Mr. Lehrman was paid $1,200. (He provided longer recordings than Ms. Sage did.)

In April 2022, Mr. Lehrman discovered a YouTube video about the war in Ukraine that was narrated by a voice that sounded like his.

“It is my voice talking about weaponry in the Ukrainian-Russian conflict,” he said. “I go ghost white — goose bumps on my arms. I knew I had never said those words in that order.”

For months, he and Ms. Sage struggled to understand what had happened. They hired a lawyer to help them track down who had made the YouTube video and how Mr. Lehrman’s voice had been recreated. But the owner of the YouTube channel seemed to be based in Indonesia, and they had no way to find the person.

Then they heard the podcast on their way to the doctor’s office. Through the podcast, “Deadline Strike Talk,” they were able to identify the source of Mr. Lehrman’s voice clone. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor had pieced the chatbot together using voice synthesis technology from Lovo.

Ms. Sage also found an online video in which the company had pitched its voice technology to investors during an event in Berkeley in early 2020. In the video, a Lovo executive showed off a synthetic version of Ms. Sage’s voice and compared it to a recording of her real voice. Both played alongside a photo of a woman who was not her.

“I was in their pitch video to raise money,” Ms. Sage said. The company has since raised more than $7 million and claims over two million customers across the globe.

Mr. Lehrman and Ms. Sage also discovered that Lovo was promoting voice clones of her and Mr. Lehrman on its website. After they sent the company a cease-and-desist letter, the company said it had removed their voice clones from the site. But Mr. Lehrman and Ms. Sage argued that the software that drove these voice clones had already been downloaded by an untold number of the company’s customers and could still be used.

Mr. Lehrman also questioned whether the company had used the couple’s voices alongside many others to build the core technology that drives its voice cloning system. Voice synthesizers often learn their skills by analyzing thousands of hours of spoken words, in much the way that OpenAI’s ChatGPT and other chatbots learn their skills by analyzing vast amounts of text culled from the internet.

Lovo acknowledged that it had trained its technology using thousands of hours of recordings of thousands of voices, according to correspondence in the suit.

Mr. Case, the lawyer representing Lovo, said that the company trained its A.I. system using audio from a freely available database of English recordings called Openslr.org. He did not respond when asked if Mr. Lehrman’s and Ms. Sage’s voice recordings had been used to train the technology.

“We hope to claw back control over our voices, over who we are, over our careers,” Mr. Lehrman said. “We want to represent others this has happened to and those that this will happen to if nothing changes.”

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