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TikTok Voice to Speech (3)

How the voice of TikTok sued the app for stealing her speech

Voice actor Bev Standing and her lawyer tell Dazed about filing a lawsuit against the app, after it non-consensually used Standing’s vocals for its text-to-speech feature

If you’re familiar with TikTok – and let’s face it, who isn’t at this point? – you might recognise its monotone, Alexa-esque text-to-speech feature. Although the feature was first implemented at the end of last year to aid in-app accessibility for visually impaired users, it was popularly repurposed by TikTokers as a narration tool for comedic effect. Users have applied this beloved bot-like voice to their videos to tell stories, recite memes, and say cruel or offensive things for a laugh. That is until recently, when TikTok changed the much-loved voice late last month, seemingly without explanation. But there is one.

It’s easy to think that TikTok’s text-to-speech feature, much like other AIs, is totally computer generated, but there’s a real person behind the words being spoken. Bev Standing is a Canadian voice actor and, as of late last year, the involuntary voice of TikTok. Standing claims that the audio in question was recorded as a job for the Chinese Institute of Acoustics three years ago, but has since found itself as a popular viral TikTok feature, much to her confusion. “The only people I’ve worked with are the people I was hired by, which was for translations... My agreement is not what it’s being used for, and it’s not with the company that’s using my voice,” Standing tells Dazed.

After discovering her voice on the app via friends, colleagues, and family members, Standing opened a lawsuit against TikTok’s parent company ByteDance on the grounds of intellectual property theft. Standing did not consent for her performance to be used by TikTok and has growing concerns that some of the cruel and offensive content created using her audio could hinder her ability to get work in the future. “I’ve worked really hard to create a huge client base and I audition for jobs every single day so I’m constantly looking for new clients, but who’s to say a client goes, ‘I recognise that voice, I can’t use it’, you know?” wonders Standing. 

Since filing her lawsuit, Standing and her lawyer have not had much correspondence with TikTok and ByteDance other than their initial response acknowledging the lawsuit. However, TikTok has since changed the voice used for the feature, which suggests they might be taking Standing’s case quite seriously. The feature’s change was met with a range of responses from North American TikTok users, with many taking to the app to broadcast their dismay over the new voice, which they think is a bit too Barbie or Karen-like. Some users have even emailed Standing directly. “I’ve been told I ruined TikTok – I didn’t do anything?” Standing laughs.

In our digital world, is it fair to assume that everything is in the public domain? Sure, your snarky Tweets about football could be made into a Loveofhuns meme, or maybe a video of you falling over might reach viral status, much to your embarrassment. But social media content carries its own copyright law from intellectual property. Not to sound all #girlboss, but you’d think that a corporation as large as TikTok would be able to compensate creators for their work rather than, uh, stealing it. 

Yet this isn’t the first time TikTok has come under the firing line for running off with someone else’s work. Last year, viral video app Triller filed a lawsuit against TikTok, alleging that they ripped off their (now extremely popular) Green Screen feature, which Triller claims was patented by them in 2017. This may all just seem like a very elaborate Silicon Valley tech-bro version of that pointed finger Spiderman meme, but real people, like Bev Standing, are getting caught in the middle.

With new technology popping up on the regular, regulations need to be put in place to ensure that everyone involved is protected. Standing highlights that her case against TikTok is not an isolated issue, but part of a wider issue involving text-to-speech jobs and artificial intelligence in the voice acting industry. “There’s a lot of text-to-speech development going on, so some guidelines have got to be put in place to protect both companies like TikTok and the talent – there needs to be agreements put in place, so hopefully that comes out of this,” explains Standing. 

Ongoing text-to-speech development is predicted to reach nearly $5 billion by 2027, which is probably enough to give some slimy Musk-cuck a raging hard-on. But if our Black Mirror nightmare is about to become our reality, we really ought to ensure the actors behind text-to-speech, as well as ourselves, are not in danger of being exploited. 

“This kind of technology can cause all kinds of damage. Like using someone’s voiceprint to take money out of their bank – there’s so many things you can do with a person’s voice” – Robert Sciglimpaglia, entertainment lawyer

Standing’s lawyer, Robert Sciglimpaglia, specialises in entertainment law and is heavily familiar with the voice acting industry, having worked in it himself. Sciglimpaglia explains that Standing’s case is a “whole new level of unauthorised usage”, adding that the case spotlights other issues surrounding text-to-speech and artificial intelligence in general. Although Sciglimpaglia says that Standing’s case is “pretty solid” due to quite clear-cut copyright laws, he shares some anxieties about newer AIs that can mimic anyone’s voice. Not only could this technology make the voice acting industry obsolete, but it could also sacrifice personal safety. “This kind of technology can cause all kinds of damage. Like using someone’s voiceprint to take money out of their bank – there’s so many things you can do with a person’s voice,” Sciglimpaglia tells Dazed.

Although Standing’s case is ongoing, TikTok has until July 7 to respond with a resolution. Both Standing and her lawyer have not had much correspondence with the app aside from their initial response, but the fact that they have removed Standing’s voice and replaced it with a different, more upbeat voice, is promising. “This is a big deal. You can’t do this – you can’t do this in the music industry, you can’t do this in the art industry, I don’t think you can do this in the voice industry,” says Standing. 

TikTok refused to comment on this piece, explaining that they “don’t comment on ongoing litigation”