In 2018, my friend and colleague Bev Standing recorded about 10,000 sentences for the Chinese Institute of Acoustics -part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences- to be used (and this is important) in translations. It’s the only Text-To-Speech job she’s ever performed.
Fast forward to 2021. The popular app TikTok seems to be using these recordings in text-to-speech applications without Bev’s permission. She never worked for TikTok, and TikTok never paid her a penny.
TikTok users can now make Bev say anything they want her to say. Bev says she feels violated. She told the BBC:
“When I realized you could get me to say anything you want… that upset me,” she said, describing the content as “totally against brand.”
“I’m certainly hoping it doesn’t affect my business in a negative way.”
“Clients may stop hiring me because they recognize that voice.”
Bev has hired lawyer, producer, and (voice) actor Robert Sciglimpaglia, and she is taking TikTok to court. The lawsuit alleges that Bev’s voice is being used in thousands of viral videos containing “foul and offensive language” causing “irreparable harm” to her reputation.
THE KEY QUESTION
Can a company use a voice actor’s performance without pay or permission, or is it protected by copyright? That is going to be the key question moving forward.
I’m not a legal expert, but I think it’s going to be a matter of who owns the intellectual property of the recording of the performance. Is it the voice talent, or did the talent assign it to another entity? In Bev’s case, there is no contract so, technically, she still owns the sound files.
However, we all know what happened to Susan Bennett, the original voice of Siri. Bennett recorded her voice in 2005 for a company called Siri, and she was paid for her time in the studio. She had no say in the usage of her voice.
Then Apple bought Siri, and used the technology in the iPhone. Susan didn’t make a dime. She said:
“I was flattered to be chosen to basically be the voice of Apple in North America, but having been chosen without my knowledge was strange. Especially since my voice was on millions and millions of devices.”
“There were Siris all over the world because, for instance, I don’t speak Thai or Japanese. They had to have native speakers. And all of the original Siris weren’t paid for the usage. We were paid for the original recording sessions, but we weren’t paid for being on all those phones. Which is a pretty big issue for us.”
A LINE IN THE SAND
What Bev Standing did took courage. Going up against a Chinese platform that has been downloaded 2 billion times.
As a company, TikTok’s mission is “to capture and present the world’s creativity, knowledge, and precious life moments, directly from the mobile phone. TikTok enables everyone to be a creator, and encourages users to share their passion and creative expression through their videos.”
Anyone can become a content provider because of the simplicity of the app. Every day TikTok has 689 million users worldwide. That makes it more popular than SnapChat, Pinterest, or Twitter. These user statistics do not include China because the network operates under a different name. The Chinese version named Douyin has about 600 million users.
TikTok is the most downloaded app on the Apple App Store and appeals to a young audience between 10 and 29. On average, they spend about 52 minutes a day on the app. Within a year of TikTok’s development, it reached this milestone of 1 million views per day. It’s staggering, isn’t it?
According to Bloomberg, ByteDance (TikTok’s owner), more than doubled its revenues from $7.4 billion in 2018 to $17 billion in 2019.
Needless to say, TikTok has deep pockets to pay voice over artists for the use of their voice. It also has deep pockets to hire the best lawyers and take on Bev Standing.
Bev’s case is one about intellectual property and a damaged reputation, as well as about alleged lost revenue. It affects us all. If we do not stand up against the Goliaths of this world who steal what we own in broad daylight, we accept that our voice, our skill, and our labor is worth…. nothing.
The kids who use TikTok don’t care. They grew up in a world where you don’t pay for stuff anymore. Need a photo for Instagram? Take a screenshot! Want some background music for your video? Get an illegal download! Concepts like copyright and intellectual ownership mean nothing to these youngsters. To them it’s just a game. To us, our livelihood is at stake.
So, are we going to draw a line in the sand and say: This far and no further? Or will we be bullied by a billion dollar company that thinks it can get away with theft?
THE BEIJING TREATY
Bev’s case is just one example of the nightmare of OWNERSHIP and USAGE in our industry. Shouldn’t there be some international regulation which protects performers like you, me, and Bev from being ripped off?
Luckily, there is!
The Beijing Treaty on Audiovisual Performances (BTAP)was adopted on June 24, 2012, and finally entered into force on April 28, 2020 after enough nations signed on. It deals with the intellectual property rights of performers in audiovisual performances.
The Beijing Treaty grants performers four kinds of economic rights for their audiovisual performances:
(i) the right of reproduction; (ii) the right of distribution; (iii) the right of rental; and (iv) the right of making available.
The right of reproduction is the right to authorize direct or indirect reproduction of the audiovisual performance in any manner or form.
The right of distribution is the right to authorize the making available to the public of the original and copies of the audiovisual performance through sale or other transfer of ownership.
The right of rental is the right to authorize the commercial rental to the public of the original and copies of the audiovisual performance.
The right of making available is the right to authorize the making available to the public, by wired or wireless means, of any audiovisual performance, in such a way that members of the public may access the performance from a place and at a time individually chosen by them. This right covers, in particular, on demand, interactive making available through the Internet.
The Treaty also grants performers moral rights, that is, the right to claim to be identified as the performer; and the right to object to any distortion, mutilation or other modification that would be prejudicial to the performer’s reputation, taking into account the nature of the audiovisual medium.
As to the transfer of rights, the Treaty provides that Contracting Parties may stipulate in their national laws that once a performer has consented to the audiovisual fixation of a performance, the exclusive rights mentioned above are transferred to the producer of the audiovisual fixation (unless a contract between the performer and producer states otherwise).
By the way, a “fixation” is the process by which a live performance is captured for the first time in a medium, whether analogue or digital, from which it can be further enjoyed or reproduced through a device.
According to BTAP, “independent of such a transfer of rights, national laws or individual, collective or other agreements may provide the performer with the right to receive royalties or equitable remuneration for any use of the performance, as provided for under the Treaty.”
This all sounds magnificent, but does BTAP have any teeth?
According to the World Intellectual property Organization (WIPO), the organization behind BTAP…
“The Treaty obliges each Contracting Party to adopt, in accordance with its legal system, the measures necessary to ensure the application of the Treaty. In particular, each Contracting Party must ensure that enforcement procedures are available under its law so as to permit effective action against any act of infringement of rights covered by the Treaty. Such action must include expeditious remedies to prevent infringement as well as remedies that constitute a deterrent to further infringement.”
Has this happened? I don’t know. I’m a voice actor. Not a legal scholar.
Only 42 of the 193 WIPO member states have signed the Treaty, and that took almost ten years. The USA and China signed on June 25th, 2012, but Canada has yet to sign. Bev Standing is a Canadian citizen, filing a civil action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York against a Chinese company that denies getting Bev’s files from a Beijing-based government agency.
At this point I need to remind you that TikTok (ByteDance) is presumed innocent until proven guilty. I also know that Bev and her lawyer would never file a frivolous lawsuit without having a legal leg to stand on. Robert Sciglimpaglia explains his position in detail on the Pro Audio Suite podcast. Click here to listen to that episode. He says the Beijing Treaty is between nations – not people, and as long as the countries that signed have not put it into their national law, it is irrelevant.
I know one thing: Bev feels her professional reputation has taken a hit because of TikTok. She will need to prove that to the judge, but there is a precedent.
Susan Bennett reminds us of the damage that can be done, when your voice is used without pay or permission. Bennett:
“I know there was one person who ended up getting fired from another job because he was working for a company that considered Apple a competitor. His voice was on the iPhone, and he lost a job because of it.”
The same can happen to Bev, and she needs and deserves our full support. So, what can we do to help?
STANDING WITH BEV
I have created the hashtag #StandingWithBev that I hope you’ll use when you bring up her case in your social media accounts. When I post on Instagram, for instance, I also add the hashtag #TikTok to the story to increase our reach.
I know that many of you have a presence on TikTok. Either use that presence to expose their practices, or leave the platform in protest. As someone once said, you can’t serve two masters. If you agree that using someone’s voice without pay or permission is wrong, it’s morally unacceptable to keep on supporting that platform by creating content it uses to turn a massive profit.
I also think it would be good for us to put our money where our mouth is. Going to Court in the United States is a costly business, and I think we should start a Legal Fund for Bev, using a platform like GoFundMe. If anything, it will show the Court how much support Bev has in our community. Her case is a test case for all of us voice actors.
GO FUND BEV
Well, it looks like Maria Pendolino stepped up to the plate. We now have an official Stand with Bev Standing fundraiser on GoFundMe. Thank you, Maria! Within a few hours, twenty donors had already raised more than $2,000 of a $10,000 goal.
Bev has pledged that if she does not need some or any of the funds from this fundraiser, they will be donated to the Brad Venable Memorial Scholarship fund to assist other voice actors in their times of need or to further their education.
And finally a few words about TTS.
Some colleagues have called taking on Text-To-Speech projects “career suicide.” Once your voice has been sampled, you’ve effectively put yourself out of business. Your services are no longer needed.
Make sure that when you do decide to sell your voice to a TTS-company, you go over the contract with a lawyer like Rob Sciglimpaglia and a very, very fine comb. Does it live up to the Beijing Treaty, or do you lose all rights to the recording for ever and ever?
And should you agree to sign some of your rights away, make sure you get properly compensated. I’m talking about at least six figures!
Anything less would be an insult.
On May 25th, the website THE VERGE reported that TikTok has changed the voice on its text-to-speech feature, replacing Bev’s voice with a new voice. The verge writes:
“This new voice appears to be a response to a lawsuit filed against TikTok owner ByteDance earlier this month. (…) TikTok has yet to comment on Standing’s lawsuit or the new voice. But this week’s change suggests the company is taking her lawsuit seriously.”
PS As always, the bolded text in blue is a hyperlink, taking you to a new page outside of nethervoice.com