Gold starVoice 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.

Celebrity Voiceover Impressions: Be cautious! Words to the Wise

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.
Bettye Zoller
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Have you had a similar experience or do you have anything to add?

Looking forward to your reply!
Best wishes,
Stephanie
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Stephanie Ciccarelli is the Co-Founder and Chief Brand Officer of Voices.com. Classically trained in voice, piano, violin and musical theatre, as well as a respected mentor and industry speaker, Stephanie graduated with a Bachelor of Musical Arts from the Don Wright Faculty of Music at the University of Western Ontario. Possessing a great love for imparting knowledge and empowering others, her blog serves an audience what wants to grow in their careers as professional voice users, and more specifically, voice actors. Stephanie was recently listed on the PROFIT Magazine W100 list three times (2013, 2015 and 2016), a ranking of Canada's top female entrepreneurs, and is the author of Voice Acting for Dummies®.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Whatever the country you live in and whatever the exact words of the law, I think it all comes down on common sense. If you’re impersonating a celebrity and you make those who listen think they are listening to the real deal, then what you’re doing is wrong. If the entire point of your impersonation is to let people know it’s an impersonation then you’ll never get in trouble with it. And that’s where you should draw the line.

  2. At first, it may seem a celebrity is only concerned with making money and doesn’t want anyone cashing in on their name. Which is a perfectly fine way for them to feel.
    After you think about it, you’ll realize Celebrities spend a lot of time creating and maintaining their public image. By impersonating a celebrity, it’s saying that the celebrity endorses the product, service or topic being discussed.
    People buy based on referrals, so when the celebrity endorsement is not genuine- it’s basically false advertising.
    -Jason

  3. As Bettye points out, parody and satire are exceptions, protected in the United States by the First Amendment. It’s OK to impersonate Paris Hilton for the purpose of poking fun at her; it’s not OK to impersonate her to sell chihauhuas.
    I’m not sure I can agree with Philippe that we can always depend on common sense to keep us out of legal trouble. Whatever common sense is, it seems to be very uncommon these days; and the very existence of articles like this seems to indicate that a little education is also necessary.

  4. I am trying to find this anywhere. Am I legally allowed to use a catch phrase from a celebrity on a physical product I am creating?
    For example, Paris Hilton used “That’s Hot” Say if I am creating a Toy army woman that is based on Mercury and I want her catch phrase to be Paris Hiltons’ voice of “That’s Hot”
    Is that legal? Also i know that phrase came from that realitity show (forgot the name) on FOX. Would fox hold the rights to that Phrase?
    Thanks in advance
    Matt

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