By Stephanie Ciccarelli
February 19, 2009
Voice actress and coach Bettye Zoller presents an interesting case for why you shouldn't touch unlicensed celebrity voice over impersonation work with a ten foot pole.
While not all voice over jobs for celebrity or sound alikes are to be avoided, it is wise to make sure you are fully aware of the lay of the land and take any necessary precautions.
Hear about some experiences Bettye's had, come to your own conclusions, and comment sharing your thoughts.
By Bettye Zoller Seitz
Awhile ago now, entertainer Bette Midler won a lawsuit when her voice was impersonated by a voiceover talent on a national commercial. I believe the person sang as well as spoke in this commercial but I am not certain. The Disney corporation is known as one that is particularly alert to infringements of copyrights. When I was Commercial Creative Director of a large production firm a few years back, we producers were warned to be particularly wary of writing song parodies or voiceover copy using any type of Disney material or references. You couldn't be "too careful" was what we were told when creating industrial shows and commercial jingles and voiceover scripts.
When I impersonated Joan Rivers working for a large advertising agency who had hired me to do her voice on a commercial, I was disappointed when my agent phoned to say that the spot would never be aired because the ad agency had been told it was too dangerous and it should be scrapped. I was paid a session fee (it was a union job, of course), but unfortunately lost those juicy residuals I was hoping to get from it.
When I voiced Marilyn Monroe for a popular soft drink commercial, that spot was also scrapped before airing. The advertising agency told me that the legal department had deemed it "too dangerous because the Monroe Estate might take action." I have heard from friends in our industry with experience in these matters that the estates of deceased stars are particularly aware of impersonations and often take action.
The Elvis estate is known for having eyes and ears peeled for infringements of all types. "But what about all the Elvis impersonators," you may be saying...well, that's "small potatoes." I suspect that lawsuits happen when large-scale exposure and big-money projects are involved. Also, it's important to realize that "parodies" are different from "impersonating someone's voice."
Simon Rushton's Radio Advertising website is a must-visit for anyone interested in free advice on advertising projects. This excerpt is from the Media UK website written by David Baynham and based on work by Lee Climpson and Ian Hickling:
"Using a vo to sell an an item is completely different from . . . doing a parody
impression. [A celebrity] may not want to sell [a particular] product or endorse that
item, he also could have voiced it, so he can sue for loss of earnings and defamation
of character if he is against that product. It could get very expensive for you as the
writer and the station for broadcasting it." If you, the voiceover talent, have written
the copy and voiced it, you then would become the person being sued!" (December 2007)
Simon Rushton says this:
"The client phones me and tells me he has an idea. It's using an impression of ______
with the final line [a famous quote from that person.} ...I have to explain that ...we could
be sued. This celebrity is available to do voiceovers. He makes a portion of his living
with that kind of work. An impression of him is a form of theft."
There also is a possibility that a certain celebrity figure is tied to certain corporations for whom they get paid as a "product spokesman" and may have a contract prohibiting him or her from endorsing rival products. Many TV actors have clauses in contracts prohibiting them from performing in commercials of any kind. This is true of many soap opera stars.
Many entertainment personalities who also do voiceovers must sign "non-compete contracts" saying they will not endorse another automobile or fast food chain. In fact, we anonymous vo people who are not recognizable "stars" often are asked by producers to sign non-compete clauses. The voice must be recognizable, in most of these cases, however.
People often want a celebrity voice in a commercial or a narration and therefore, will pay premium prices for celebrities. That's why lawsuits are high-dollar! It is illegal to impersonate living people in commercials without their permission. Before you, a voiceover talent, impersonate a living (or deceased) star, you should make sure that the people hiring you have obtained copyright clearance. If your agent books you on a celebrity job, he or she probably will have taken care of this precaution. However, it might not hurt to 'remind' the agent of legalities.
Even if you personally were not sued for impersonating a famous voice in a commercial, you might have to undertake time-consuming duties connected with testifying, with legal depositions or court appearances. Agencies, production houses, broadcast voices, and others are urged to be wary.
Oh... and I may not be a lawyer, but I play one on TV. This article is meant only as information which I have gleaned from reading articles and visiting websites on this subject. I make no claim as to the accuracy of this information. It comes from my knowledge of the field and research I've conducted over a period of time. Everyone is advised that in legal matters, seek the counsel of your legal advisers for the final actions necessary in these matters. I am not legal counsel. This brief article contains my opinions.
Looking forward to your reply!