The Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (“SAG-AFTRA”) have come back to the forefront of entertainment industry news after they announced a “groundbreaking” new AI voice agreement with an AI voice technology company, Replica Studios (“Replica”).
The Replica Agreement was introduced in early January 2024 at the CES technology conference. In a news bulletin to its members, SAG-AFTRA stated that the “new agreement paves the way for professional voice over artists to safely explore new employment opportunities for their digital voice replicas with industry-leading protections tailored to AI technology” and said that the agreement had been approved by voiceover performer members of the union.
However, many performers took to X (formerly Twitter) and other social media sites when the deal was announced, revealing that they had not in fact been consulted on the terms. Many performers are concerned about their rights and the future of the industry in light of the news.
The Replica Agreement has been announced against the backdrop of a difficult year for SAG-AFTRA and actors across the film and television industry; Hollywood was ground to a halt by 118 days of actors' strikes in 2023. In September 2023, SAG-AFTRA members also voted to authorize strikes against video games companies in the wake of negotiations of a new Interactive Media Agreement – though the union stopped short of actually striking.
What’s in the agreement?
The Replica Agreement concerns “Digital Voice Replicas” (“DVRs”). These are defined as “Voice Model[s] trained on recordings of specific individual(s) and has individually-identifiable unique characteristics (such as sound, tone, rhythm, or cadence) that remain consistent and recognizable when used to synthesize speech.” To put it less technically, the agreement contains terms under which Replica can create recordings of a performer’s voice which can then be used to train AI. Additionally, Replica can license out the DVRs to other companies under the agreement (subject to various obligations and restrictions).
One of the more controversial terms, in our view, is a term which allows Replica to make DVRs from pre-existing voice recordings of performers, whether living or dead. Using AI to create and use previously-recorded performances has already been the subject of some debate on both sides of the Atlantic with the rising use of AI to generate new footage of deceased actors from their performances in old films. For example, there is an ongoing dispute about Disney’s AI-generated use of a performance by actor Peter Cushing (who died in 1994) in Star Wars: Rogue One (2016) and whether Disney had the necessary rights to “resurrect” Cushing’s performance. Though the Replica Agreement has protections in terms of payment, consents and usage, there’s a chance that this could erode the need for actors to create new content and the opportunity to generate further revenue. It's certainly a concern that’s been raised by many [video games] performers.
How does that tally up with the TV/Theatrical Contract? Are they related?
The recently-agreed SAG-AFTRA-AMPTP TV/Theatrical Contract stands separately to the Replica Agreement; further, the Interactive Media Agreement is not (in theory) impacted by this deal at all. Those are both national, multi-employer collective bargaining agreements, whereas the Replica Agreement is only in place with a single company.
The TV/Theatrical Contract has extensive protections about the use of AI by studios and other producers. There is a heavy focus on transparency and the need for a performer’s informed consent when signing up to anything AI-related. The Replica Agreement is no different: it places heavy emphasis on informed, continuing and often written consent at all stages of creation, usage and licensing of the DVRs. This is absolutely key and is something which is being fought for in many creative industries. The speed at which AI is being developed means that performers and other creatives should understand what they are signing up to from the outset and ensure that they have the opportunity to consent to any further use of their original performance, should the intended use of such performance change or develop over time in light of new technology. The Replica Agreement is a little light on the detail of what “informed” actually means; there is guidance from SAG-AFTRA on informed consent in relation to digital replicas under the new TV/Theatrical Contract, but it remains to be seen whether this applies across all guild agreements.
What does all this mean?
The new contract was described as “groundbreaking” by SAG-AFTRA not least as it gives rise to potential new revenue streams for artists and control over use of an artist’s synthetic voice. However, some in the industry see it as a less positive sign of things to come. Some artists see the protections in place as generic and vague; and others believe it will have a detrimental effect on artists, reducing creative input and allowing studios to conveniently and cheaply replicate performances in their videogames.
Considering negotiations are still ongoing for the Interactive Media Agreement, the Replica Agreement could be a frontrunner to SAG-AFTRA members and the wider industry. Much like the newly-minted TV/Theatrical Contract, the Interactive Media Agreement could have a massive impact on the global videogame industry. If the Hollywood studios are able to get behind proper AI protections for actors and other talent, videogame performers could see similarly wide-ranging, clear and well-defined restrictions on the usage of AI by developers and producers.
 SAG-AFTRA Replica Digital Voice Replica Development Agreement: Replica Studios Agreement for Digital Voice Replicas_0.pdf (sagaftra.org)