Scarlett Johansson Takes on OpenAI

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2 min read

In the 2013 film "Her," Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix) finds solace in an AI-powered operating system with a voice that captivates him. The voice, belonging to "Samantha" and brought to life by Scarlett Johansson, becomes an integral part of the narrative. Fast forward to the real world, and Johansson's voice has again taken centre stage, this time in a legal battle with OpenAI, an $86 billion artificial intelligence start-up.

The Controversy

Johansson recently made headlines when she accused OpenAI of using a voice eerily similar to hers for their chatbot, Sky. This controversy erupted after she declined Sam Altman’s offer to lend her voice to ChatGPT. Despite her refusal, OpenAI proceeded with a voice that Johansson claims even her closest friends couldn't distinguish from her own. She expressed her shock and anger in a statement, leading to Altman removing the voice and issuing an apology.

The episode has sent shockwaves through Hollywood, highlighting the ongoing fears among actors about AI technologies' unauthorized use of their voices and likenesses. Despite securing protections in last year's strikes, the industry remains wary of the mantra often associated with tech companies: "move fast and break things." Johansson’s confrontation with OpenAI underscores the broader implications for digital rights and actor protections.

Johansson is no stranger to taking on powerful entities. In 2021, she famously battled Disney over the simultaneous release of "Black Widow" on its streaming service and in theatres. The dispute centred around potential financial losses due to decreased box office revenue and ended in a multimillion-dollar settlement for Johansson. This background and her high-profile legal team suggest that Johansson is well-prepared to address the current issue with OpenAI.

Historical Precedents

Johansson’s case echoes past legal battles over voice impersonation. One notable example is the case of Midler v. Ford Motor Co., 849 F.2d 460 (9th Cir. 1988). In this landmark case, Bette Midler sued Ford Motor Company after they hired a sound-alike singer for a commercial when she declined to participate. The court ruled in Midler's favour, establishing that a distinctive voice is protected from unauthorised use.

The Future of AI and Digital Rights

As AI advances, the entertainment industry must navigate the complexities of digital rights and protections. Johansson's actions may set a precedent for future disputes, emphasising the need for clear guidelines and respect for personal attributes in the digital age.

The situation with Scarlett Johansson and OpenAI is pivotal for the intersection of AI technology and the entertainment industry. As legal frameworks catch up with technological advancements, this case could shape the future of digital rights and protections for creative professionals.