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Tennessee governor, music leaders launch push to protect songwriters and other artists against AI

Republican Gov. Bill Lee, who governs a state that plays a critical role in the music industry, hopes that new legislation to protect songwriters from AI will serve as a national blueprint.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Wednesday unveiled new legislation designed to protect songwriters, performers and other music industry professionals against the potential dangers of artificial intelligence.

Lee made the announcement while standing in the middle of Nashville's famed RCA Studio A, a location where legends such as Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson and Charley Pride have all recorded. Packed inside were top music industry leaders, songwriters and lawmakers, all eager to praise the state's rich musical history while also sounding the alarm about the threats AI poses.

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"Tennessee will be the first state in the country to protect artists’ voices with this legislation," Lee said. "And we hope it will be a blueprint for the country."

The legislation comes as states across the country and federal lawmakers wrestle with the challenge of curbing the dangers of AI. The bill hasn’t been formally introduced inside the Tennessee Legislature and the text of the proposal has yet to be publicly distributed.

Lee said he wants to ensure that AI tools cannot replicate an artist’s voice without the artist's consent. That involves turning to one of the state's most iconic residents: Elvis Presley.

The death of Presley in 1977 sparked a contentious and lengthy legal battle over the unauthorized use of his name and likeness, as many argued that once a celebrity died, their name and image entered into the public domain.

However, by 1984 the Tennessee Legislature passed the Personal Rights Protection Act, which ensured that personality rights do not stop at death and can be passed down to others. It states that "the individual rights … constitute property rights and are freely assignable and licensable, and do not expire upon the death of the individual so protected."

The move was largely seen as critical in protecting Presley's estate, but has since been praised as protecting the names, photographs and likenesses of all of Tennessee's public figures in the decades since.

It also was monumental in preserving name, photographs and likeness as a property right rather than a right of publicity. To date, only two other states — New York and California — have similar protections, making it easier to seek damages in court.

But no state currently has enacted protections against vocal likeness. And with AI posing a threat to almost every industry, artists and other creatives are increasingly calling for stronger protections against new AI tools that produce imagery, music, video and text.

"If a machine is able to take something from someone’s lifetime and experience and re-create it without permission, or take someone’s voice and use it without permission, let’s just call it what it is: It’s wrong," said four-time Grammy-nominated songwriter Jamie Moore.

Ultimately, the goal is to ensure that AI tools are not scraping and using an artist's song or voice in order to learn how to spit out a song itself without the artist's permission, said Bart Herbison, executive director of the Nashville Songwriters Association International. Another key aspect is fighting for proper payment.

Herbison said he watched generative AI tools advance from writing awkward songs in February of last year to spitting out moving and emotional pieces by October.

"What it can do now is freaky scary. It's all people can talk about in the writer's rooms," he said.

Other AI legislation is expected to pop up across the country as many statehouses resume work this month. Already in California, a lawmaker has proposed a measure requiring the state to establish safety, privacy, and nondiscrimination standards around generative-AI tools and services. Those standards would eventually be used as qualifications in future state contracts. Another proposal has been introduced to create a state-run research center to further study the technology.

On the federal level, the U.S. Copyright Office is weighing whether to enact copyright reforms in response to generative AI. Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators has introduced legislation called the No Artificial Intelligence Fake Replicas And Unauthorized Duplications Act of 2024. Supporters say the measure will combat AI deepfakes, voice clones and other harmful digital human impersonations.

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