I want to come back to a story I wrote a few weeks ago on my Instagram account. It’s the story of Irish voice actor Remie Michelle Clarke. She first told the vlog of voice caster Voquent that a company named Revoicer was advertising her voice as one of their many text-to-speech solutions.
Here’s the thing: Remie has never recorded anything for Revoicer. She did not give them permission to use her voice, and she was never paid by Revoicer. But now, for a very low fee, people can use her voice to make her say anything they want her to say. (Revoicer has her listed as Olivia, by the way)
The Voquent blog called Remie “a victim of theft” and said the situation became “a real-life nightmare” for her. She tried to contact Revoicer, but they told her they couldn’t help. Legal action was impossible because the company has no business address listed, and Remie’s lawyer said that, in the eyes of the current law, she did not even own her own voice.
I was so outraged by what Revoicer had done, I went to the website Trustpilot and gave them a very bad review, warning potential customers that they were buying stolen goods. If we couldn’t take them to court, at least we could shame them in the court of public opinion!
But the story doesn’t end there.
Having read my review, Revoicer replied defiantly that they had not stolen Remie’s voice, and that they were an ethical company.
Just because voices are “publicly available” doesn’t mean you can take them without permission and pay, use your own algorithms and sell them on the world wide web. If I use someone’s picture without permission, I can be taken to court for violation of copyright. There are specialized predatory law firms who will ask you to pay thousands of dollars to settle a case.
It’s important to know that we still don’t know for sure how Revoicer was able to obtain Remie’s audio, but since the story broke, some new information was brought to my attention.
THE MICROSOFT CONNECTION
A few years ago, Remie found a job on voices.com which turned out to be for Microsoft. Nothing in the job description mentioned text to speech applications. Because she’s a top-notch talent, Remie won the audition and did the job in good faith. She signed a contract without really looking at it, like so many of us do.
It turns out that in this contract she signed away her rights, and her voice most likely ended up in Microsoft’s Azure, a cloud computing platform offering lots of services, such as… an AI voice generator. Here’s what Microsoft says:
“Azure Cognitive Services enables developers to convert text to lifelike speech using AI. Enterprises and agencies utilize Azure Neural TTS for video game characters, chatbots, content readers, and more. The Azure Neural TTS product team is continuously working on bringing new voice styles and emotions to the US market and beyond.”
As we speak, there are more than 400 of what Microsoft calls “neural voices” across 140 languages.
This means there must be many more Remie’s who (most likely) all signed their rights away. You may be one of them!
Remie told me that if Revoicer got her voice through Azure, she only has herself to blame. She’s also found another website that is now using a clone of her voice, and it probably won’t be the last.
WHO IS TO BLAME
I don’t agree that Remie only has herself to blame. Yes, she should have read her contract line by line before she signed it. But voices dot com should have provided an accurate job description mentioning the text to speech application so voice talent could put in an accurate bid (by adding a few zeros).
Maybe voices dot com was left in the dark by Microsoft, who knows? I also feel the law has to change to make sure that if you record voice overs for one application, they cannot simply be used for another application without additional pay, or sold to third parties. The law should also state that we own our own voice, just as we own our legs, eyes, and ears.
Meanwhile, Remie is still in shock. She says:
“The best thing that can come out of this now, is that my story can be a cautionary tale for other voice overs.”
You have been warned!
Don’t sign anything you don’t understand. Have a lawyer like Robert Sciglimpaglia review and perhaps rewrite the contract the client wants you to sign. Rob is also a voice actor, by the way. He successfully represented Bev Standing in her case against TikTok.
Never give your voice away for free, especially in the case of text to speech applications.
Unless you’re totally okay with competing against a cheaper version of yourself…
PS Remie’s voice is not the only one that was stolen. It also happened to my British colleague Mike Cooper.
Click here to read about Mike’s experience, and his thoughts on the implications.
Peter Hopkins says
When even a (supposedly) reputable company like Microsoft is doing personal property theft like this, this is a whole new low for humanity.
Sure, she signed it away in a contract. But Microsoft had an ethical obligation to make it clear from the start that’s what they hired her for.
As for Voices.com, pffft. Anybody who’s been in VO for a while will know this company has few if any scruples.
Dustin Ebaugh says
Paul Strikwerda says
If it’s a choice between making boatloads of money and being ethical, guess what happens!
Dustin Ebaugh says
This does not surprise me, Paul. For well over a decade anyone doing work on V dot com is subject to their terms of service, in which they grant themselves a perpetual license for any work generated through the site. They have only ever acted in their own best interest and never served the voice actor. This is why I tell anyone who will listen to avoid that site specifically, like the plague. Here’s the language from their website:
License to User Generated Content. Each User grants to Voices (and any third party authorized by Voices) an irrevocable, perpetual, worldwide, unrestricted, fully paid up, royalty free, non-exclusive right and license to reproduce, copy, publish, perform in public, communicate to the public by telecommunication, disseminate, optimize (including search engine optimization), synchronize with other content and materials, edit, translate, transcribe, close caption and otherwise store, use and process all User Generated Content (in whole or in part, as is or as may be edited) and any materials based upon or derived therefrom for the purpose of providing the Services, promoting Voices, its services and the Site. User hereby waives all moral rights (and all other rights of a like or similar nature) that User may have in the User Generated Content in favour of Voices (and any third party authorized by Voices to use such User Generated Content).
Paul Strikwerda says
These terms concern 2,000,000 professional voice over talent across 160 countries (if we are to believe the voices dot com numbers). My sad conclusion is that people don’t give a damn until they themselves are the victim of theft. Very few are willing to leave the platform that is sending them job leads every single day. “If I’m not on VDC, how will I ever get any work?” they ask.
Inga Brereton says
Thank you SO very much for this post; greatly appreciated..
Am VERY glad to have come across you and your website (although I now can’t remember exactly how).. 🙂
As for Microsoft (Bill Gates) remotely understanding the concept of ethical? Bah. Humbug. (I could – and do elsewhere) – wax long and lyrical about this sad travesty of a human being; however, being mindful of the actual subject matter, will refrain (pro tem)..
Paul Strikwerda says
I’m so glad you found me! As far as Microsoft (and other big corporations) is concerned, if it’s between money and morals, guess which one wins?
Kristina Rothe says
I’m really sad to hear this. Both because of what Remie went through, but also because of Microsoft’s involvement.
The other day folks posted about Microsoft and meta using librivox narrations to train their model. Not great for various reasons, but those recordings are in the public domain so I do appreciate them going through that thought process. This is just….
Sigh. And yeah, i’m not sure what’s more problematic on vdc, the low rates or the usages that are all too often “everything forever”. I’m guessing that requesting to clarify/limit usage is not overly appreciated.
I also don’t necessarily think it’s always nefarious on the clients’ end – more often than not I think they don’t realize there are usage tiers/options. Not saying that makes it better, but for a lot of folks I’m guessing it’s also lack of knowledge or awareness.
Harold Sogard says
Thank you, thank you, thank you for putting this important issue front and center! Let us all beware!