Without a comprehensive understanding of voiceover usage rights, signing a voice acting contract can feel like the Little Mermaid signing her voice away to the sea witch. Here’s a breakdown of voice-recording legal permissions so that you won’t end up lost at sea.
Voiceover licensing indicates the ways the voiceover will be used—either broadcast or non-broadcast.
A broadcast license means that the individual or company using a voiceover has paid media rights for broadcasts, such as those on TV, radio, or the web. Stipulations may include:
- Geographic area
- Time frame
- Medium type
- Budget minimums
Non-broadcast media rights include cartoons, audiobooks, movie trailers, podcasts, narration for documentaries and educational tutorials, voice assistants, and video games. These are usually licensed via full buyout agreements in perpetuity.
A voice cannot be copyrighted. According to the legal decision in Midler v. Ford Motor Co.: “A voice is as distinctive and personal as a face. The human voice is one of the most palpable ways identity is manifested.” This ruling did not impact general copyright, but its subsequent legal interpretations means that while a recording of a voice may be copyrighted, a voice itself may not.
However, performances by actors, “including vocal performances, are protected by copyright,” intellectual property and technology lawyer Jowanna Conboye told BBC News. “A key question is where the voice artist’s content was obtained from,” she said. “In commercial situations, copyright is often assigned to another business. But even if that is the case, the voice artist or actor normally retains moral rights, which should ensure that they are recognized as the person performing.”
If a voice is being used unlawfully—for example, if it’s being used as a deepfake—the average person will usually be protected by state law. People who put themselves in the public eye (or rather, ear), such as celebrity voice actors, usually benefit from trademarking their voice under 15 U.S.C.A. § 1051, which provides added protections.
However, digital voice rights are experiencing a sea change due to AI. Voice actor Bev Standing took on TikTok after it used her voice likeness for its text-to-speech function. The media company took Standing’s voice audio that she recorded for a translation company and replicated it using AI.
Voice actors are usually paid session and/or usage fees.
A session fee is the payment received for the time spent actually recording, whether in a studio or from home.
A usage fee is payment that depends on how the voiceover will be used.
- Time: Time-based usage indicates the length of time that a client can use your voiceover. If the usage is in perpetuity, that means that the client can use your voice recording as much as they want. While they cannot sell your actual voice to an AI voiceover company, they can sell the recording of your voice.
- Location: Location-based usage indicates where the client will use your voice, and is thus part of licensing.
Most voice actors do not earn royalties since they are paid with a full buyout—a onetime payment that allows the client to use the recording in perpetuity. However, voice actors who are members of SAG-AFTRA and working on a union contract receive royalties when their word is re-aired or released to a different format that goes beyond its initial compensation scope. The client will pay the voice actor for each subsequent use or sale of the recording.
With the advent of AI-produced synthetic voiceover, voice actors may find that they are asked to sign away the rights to their voices. To protect your voice:
- Read contracts carefully: Many companies add clauses for AI usage into their voiceover contracts, even if the work itself does not entail AI or digital use. Be sure to read through all voiceover contracts so that you understand time-based and location-based usage.
- Discuss with your agent: If you have agent, they should have finagled your rights with the client, meaning that they can explain the contract and usage to you. (And if you're not there yet, check out our guide to finding and landing a VO agent.)
- Hire a lawyer: According to the president and founder of the National Association of Voice Actors, Tim Friedlander, the language used in voice acting contracts
“can be confusing and ambiguous,” meaning that “many voice actors may have signed a contract without realizing language like this had been added.” The best way to ensure that you’re not misled by muddled legal jargon is to hire an intellectual property lawyer who specializes in voice acting to read through and explain contracts to you.
- Avoid resale, repurposing, and perpetuity: “We are also finding clauses in contracts for non-synthetic voice jobs that give away the rights to use an actor’s voice for synthetic voice training or creation without any additional compensation or approval,” Friedlander added. “Some actors are being told they cannot be hired without agreeing to these clauses.” If you see that language in a contract, consult with your lawyer. If possible, avoid any terms that involve the resale or repurposing of your voice, including the transfer of your voice if your client is bought out by another company. Further, avoid time-based usage that goes in perpetuity, since that grants the client the rights to use your voice forever (cue ominous “for-ev-er” from “The Sandlot”).
- Tread carefully with AI: If you decide to sign a contract allowing a company to use your voice to create an AI voice, make sure that you retain the rights to the AI version of your voice and that you are made aware of exactly how and where it will be used—including usage fees and royalties.