Syracuse, N.Y. (NCC News) — A new song featuring the voices of pop stars Drake and The Weeknd has come under fire after it was discovered that the creator of the track used artificial intelligence to generate vocals that sound just like they are really being delivered by the two artists—without getting permission from either of them.
A TikTok user who uses the handle “Ghostwriter977” uploaded the song, titled “Heart On My Sleeve,” to TikTok on Saturday, April 15. By Monday, April 17, the song had amassed over 15 million views across several TikTok videos and over 600,000 Spotify streams.
The success of the track was quickly met with backlash from Universal Music Group (UMG), which represents both Drake and The Weeknd. By the end of the day on Tuesday, April 17, the track had been removed from Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, Tidal, and several other major music streaming platforms. In a media statement, UMG claimed that “the training of generative AI using our artists’ music…represents both a breach of our agreements and a violation of copyright law.”
Ulf Oesterle, an assistant professor in Syracuse University’s Bandier Program for Recording and Entertainment Industries, said he’s not so sure that the song actually constitutes copyright infringement, but that there are certainly legal concerns when it comes to using an imitation of an artist’s voice without their permission.
“I don’t see this as copyright infringement when you’re using someone’s voice just yet, but I do see this as a legal issue that applies a little bit more to the name, image and likeness of a particular artist,” said Oesterle, who teaches a class at the Newhouse School about innovative technologies in the music industry.
Oesterle’s perspective hinges on the key legal concept that copyright law applies only to original works of authorship. Ghostwriter977 did not steal lyrics or recordings from Drake or The Weeknd; he only mimicked their voices, which, as of now, are not considered copyrightable, according to Oesterle. However, using the artists’ voices could infringe on their right to publicity, or, as Oesterle described it, their right to profit of off their name, image and likeness.
“We can look to Bette Midler and her case versus the Ford Motor Company. That was a legal precedent that said you cannot use a voice impersonator that sounds so much like the original creator that it’s gonna confuse the public. The AI Drake, AI The Weeknd, or any other [AI] artist out there does sound very, very convincing, and there is a likelihood of confusion in the marketplace as to where the source of that song came from, and that’s the legal issue that I see,” Oesterle said.
The case that Oesterle referred to is Midler v. Ford Motor Co., a U.S. Court of Appeals case that arose from Ford’s decision to use a Bette Midler sound-alike in a series of commercials in the 1980s. It was a logical move by Ford; it paid to be associated with a star like Bette Midler, and by using a sound-alike, the company avoided having to dish out a large sum to compensate Midler herself. However, the court found that this advertising strategy violated Midler’s right of publicity. The crux of this case, and a key similarity to “Heart On My Sleeve,” is that an outside party is benefitting from the likeness of an individual who is not being compensated for the use of their fame.
“I think there’s art in what we see AI creating and the people behind the AI that are creating these songs,” said Oesterle, “but you’re building it off the backs of artists and [record] labels and a whole system that got those artists to the level that you actually care about what that voice sounds like.”
Oesterle said that he’s not necessarily against the use of AI to generate vocals like the ones in “Heart On My Sleeve,” but that he understands the issue that songs like this would create for record labels.
“On the record label side, they are in the business of exploiting master recordings—the actual studio recordings. And when we see AI generating new recordings that are AI versions of masters that don’t exist, that’s an issue for the record labels who are out there trying to promote, sell and stream their master recordings that they have the rights to,” Oesterle said.
Oesterle draws a clear distinction here between AI-generated original recordings and AI cover songs. AI-generated originals like “Heart On My Sleeve” do not incorporate copyrighted lyrics. Cover songs, on the other hand, do precisely that.
“We did see Colbie Caillat’s song ‘Bubbly’ covered by ‘AI Drake’. And in that case, the music publisher has the right to the composition, and if no mechanical license was secured to distribute that and to make copies of that particular covered song, there’s a copyright issue,” Oesterle said.
The mechanical license that Oesterle brought up refers to a fee that must be paid to get permission to legally cover another person’s copyrighted song. This licensing fee is used to compensate the artist who wrote the composition of the original song.
“Right now, if you wanted to record a cover of any song that has been commercially released, you can get the license,” Oesterle said. “Any one of us can go do that.”
Failing to get a license to cover a song can lead to a breach of copyright law. Oesterle suggested that using a similar licensing system to grant AI access to existing music could be a solution for compensating artists for use of their songs in AI-generated tracks. He said that if artists are in fact paid for use of their music by AI, the artists will likely receive a “sizable” cut of the AI-generated song’s earnings, perhaps netting as much as 90 percent of the song’s income from streaming royalties.
“Heart On My Sleeve” remains unavailable on Spotify, Apple Music, and most other streaming services. But on user-generated content sites like SoundCloud and YouTube, users continue to re-upload the track, making it hard for UMG to get its wish of removing the song from all online platforms.
The persistent uploads of the song show that despite the complaints from those within the music business, there is clearly consumer demand for the AI-generated content. Oesterle said he can understand listeners’ appreciation for the song and others like it.
“I think from the choice standpoint, it is nice to have more choice. I’m always for more music being out there in the world,” said Oesterle, adding that “having the additional AI voices gives us more opportunities to listen to songs that are in the style of our favorite artists.”
However, he also said that he sees the danger that AI-generated vocals create for consumers.
“There will be some people that are confused as to why this song is out. You know, like ‘I didn’t think Drake was releasing a song.’ There’s gonna be some confusion, one hundred percent that’s the case,” Oesterle said. “But I think having music in the marketplace is better than not having music in the marketplace.”
In the end, like many things, it all comes down to the money, and in this case, that means paying out the artists and artist representatives who own the appropriate copyrights and rights of publicity.
“I can’t see any way that AI music is gonna just completely disappear,” Oesterle said. “So we have to tackle it head on and find a way to compensate those rights holders.”