Scarlett Johansson Lawyers Up After OpenAI ‘Mimics’ Voice for ChatGPT AI Assistant

Scarlett Johansson OpenAI lawsuit
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Scarlett Johansson OpenAI lawsuit
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Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore / CC by 2.0

Scarlett Johansson says OpenAI made an offer for her to voice their upcoming ChatGPT AI assistant. Johansson declined, but the voice assistant sounds like her anyway. Now she’s lawyered up as another fight over AI likeness rights tees up.

Johannson’s lawyers have requested that OpenAI disclose how it developed the AI personal assistant’s voice—which mimics many of the speaking mannerisms from the movie ‘Her.’ ‘Her’ is about a man who falls in love with his AI assistant after losing his wife, with the AI assistant voiced by Scarlett Johansson.

OpenAI held a live demonstration of its ‘Sky’ AI assistant last week, with many observers instantly drawing comparisons to the 2013 Spike Jonze movie. OpenAI CEO Sam Altman has called the movie his favorite and invited the comparisons by posting just the word ‘her’ on X/Twitter after announcing the new ChatGPT version. Now OpenAI executives are denying any connection between Scarlett Johnasson and the Sky voice assistant’s voice.

OpenAI said the ‘Sky’ voice was not an imitation of Scarlett Johansson’s voice and that the company hired a professional actor to create it. OpenAI did not share the actor’s name for privacy reasons. However, Scarlett Johansson’s statement about the issue reveals why she believes she has a legitimate copyright complaint.

“Last September, I received an offer from Sam Altman, who wanted to hire me to voice the current ChatGPT 4.0 system,” Johansson’s statement begins. “He told me that he felt that by my voicing the system, I could bridge the gap between tech companies and creatives and help consumers to feel comfortable with the seismic shift concerning humans and AI. He said he felt that my voice would be comforting to people.”

“After much consideration and for personal reasons, I declined the offer. Nine months later, my friends, family, and the general public all noted how much the newest system named ‘Sky’ sounded like me.”

“When I heard the released demo, I was shocked, angered, and in disbelief that Mr. Altman would pursue a voice that sounded so eerily similar to mine that my closest friends and news outlets could not tell the difference,” Johansson continues. “Mr. Altman even insinuated that the similarity was intentional, tweeting a single word ‘her’—a reference to the film in which I voiced a chat system, Samantha, who forms an intimate relationship with a human.”

“Two days before the ChatGPT 4.0 demo was released, Mr. Altman contacted my agent, asking me to reconsider. Before we could connect, the system was out there.”

“As a result of their actions, I was forced to hire legal counsel, who wrote two letters to Mr. Altman and OpenAI, setting out what they had done and asking them to detail the exact process by which they created the ‘Sky’ voice. Consequently, OpenAI reluctantly agreed to take down the ‘Sky’ voice.”

“In a time when we are all grappling with deepfakes and the protection of our own likeness, our own work, our own identities, I believe these questions deserve absolute clarity. I look forward to resolution in the form of transparency and the passage of appropriate legislation to help ensure that individual rights are protected.”

If OpenAI did build its ‘Sky’ voice model from samples of Scarlett Johansson’s voice, then she very likely does have a copyright claim. That could be Johansson herself or through the studios she performed for, who own the rights to the films in which she appears. This is exactly the kind of use case that Tennessee’s ELVIS Act is designed to prevent—by protecting the rights of personality.

The case is also similar to the Midler v. Ford case, where Ford Motor Company sought Bette Midler’s singing talent for an ad. When Midler said no, Ford hired a Midler impersonator to sing in the ad instead. Midler sued Ford and won the case in an appeal—precisely because Ford sought out Midler first before hiring an impersonator to sound like her.

Much like the Bette Midler case here, it will be interesting to see if OpenAI is compelled to reveal its training data for Sky to avoid a lawsuit. If it did not train the voice on Scarlett Johannsson’s voice clips, then there is likely no case. Altman’s reaching out to Scarlett Johannson twice before the launch suggests they knew the similarities would instantly be noted in the public eye.