Would Scarlett Johansson have a case against OpenAI?

  • A report from The Washington Post details now the voice actress for OpenAI’s Sky ChatGPT-4o assistant was hired well before it approached Scarlett Johansson.
  • While the Black Widow star has not taken any litigious action as yet, intellectual property lawyers believe she has a case.
  • Johansson could invoke right to publicity laws in the state of California, should a legal proceeding take place.

Earlier this week OpenAI announced that it was pausing the integration of one of the voices it recently demoed as a new digital assistant within ChatGPT-4o. The reason for the pause stemmed from notable similarities between the sound, tone, cadence, and general personality of the voice assistant named Sky and Hollywood actress Scarlett Johansson.

It naturally drew comparisons to the actresses’ character Samantha, an AI voice assistant in the 2014 film Her, with OpenAI CEO Sam Altman even leaning into the comparison online, saying it is one of his favourite films.

As it turned out, OpenAI did indeed reach out to Johansson before ChatGPT-4o was demoed to find out if she wanted to voice of the assistants, which she subsequently turned down. In the weeks following the demo, Johansson has issued a statement on the matter, urging that clarity on the use of celebrity voices on AI products be made a priority.

This has led many to question whether Scarlett Johansson has any grounds to sue OpenAI for creating an assistant that sounds eerily like her.

According to intellectual property lawyers, the actress may indeed have a case. This as Purvi Patel Albers, partner at the law firm Haynes Boone told The Verge that there are grounds that Johansson could pursue.

“There are a few courses of actions she can take, but case law supports her position,” says Albers. The partner explains that under California’s right to publicity laws, the identifying features of a person are protected from being used without their permission. “If you misappropriate someone’s name, likeness, or voice, you could be violating their right to publicity,” adds Albers.

Whether this is Haynes Boone trying to court a potential high-profile client, or whether this is in fact enough of a case to pursue here, remains to be seen, as Johansson has not indicted any intention of taking OpenAI into legal proceedings regarding the voice of Sky.

While the similarities are hard to ignore, Altman has maintained that the voice of Sky is a completely different voice actress. “The voice of Sky is not Scarlett Johansson’s, and it was never intended to resemble hers. We cast the voice actor behind Sky’s voice before any outreach to Ms. Johansson. Out of respect for Ms. Johansson, we have paused using Sky’s voice in our products. We are sorry to Ms. Johansson that we didn’t communicate better,” he shared in a statement this week.

Adding credence to his claims is a recent report from The Washington Post (paywall), which did some digging into the situation, and even spoke with the agent of the unnamed voice actress who recorded the voice of Sky.

The publication specifically cites the fact that a flier was sent out by OpenAI looking for “warm, engaging charismatic” voices last year, with the actors needing to be aged between 25 and 45. No mention at the time was made to a Scarlett Johansson type voice at the time.

OpenAI product manager Joanne Jang also told The Post that Mira Murati, the company’s chief technology officer, made all the decisions surrounding the AI voices project and that CEO Altman was not closely involved in the process.

On top of this, while there could be comparisons made in terms of the similarity between Sky’s voice and Johansson’s, no editing or effects were applied to make the two sound similar.

Whether this is enough to dispel the divisiveness of Sky’s voice remains to be seen, as OpenAi has stilled paused its integration into any of its products. Either way, the next steps Johansson takes, if any, will prove intriguing, especially as she has taken on big companies and won in the recent past.

[Image – Photo by Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash]


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