Scarlett Johansson Takes the AI Fight to Big Tech, and Big Media Should Follow | Commentary

Does anyone really believe OpenAI CEO Sam Altman anymore?

Altman launched OpenAI in 2015 with a mission to develop AI that “benefits all of humanity.” Fast forward nine years later, humanity be damned — Altman and his ego needed a “Her” moment when OpenAI launched its latest version, ChatGPT-4o. Problem is, Scarlett Johansson was having none of it. Neither is much of the creative community, which is finally beginning to understand its collective power and is rising up to say, “Stop the madness!”

That “madness” is the arrogant taking of not just creative works — which is the subject of an ever-growing number of infringement cases in the courts – but now also the taking of creators’ personas themselves. Exposed were Altman’s true colors when he asked Johansson for permission to use her voice, she declined, then he asked again just two days before OpenAI’s big ChatGPT-4o launch, and went forward anyway when he didn’t hear back.

Altman and his apologists want us to believe that there is no harm, no foul here because OpenAI reportedly used a faux Johansson voice, not her actual one. But that doesn’t diminish Altman’s theft, both ethically and legally. We know what Altman was really doing, and a wide body of established NIL (name, image and likeness) law protects celebrities from companies using “sound-alikes” for commercial purposes.

Singers Tom Waits and Bette Midler faced similar fact patterns decades ago. Just like Johansson, both singers declined to license their voices for major ad campaigns (by Frito-Lay and Ford Motors, respectively). But the big brands went ahead anyway using voices that mimicked the real thing. Although those NIL cases reflect the current state-by-state NIL patchwork, national legislation is now being considered in Congress to put an end to this theft of the economic value of artist personas known as their right of publicity.

Altman’s humiliating gaffe at the hands of Johansson may end up being a watershed moment in Big Tech’s relentless quest to add the next trillions of dollars to its market capitalizations. Her public pushback shines Hollywood’s bright spotlight on what’s really going on here – and it certainly ain’t Big Tech concerns for trust and safety. If there were any doubt about that, the recent departures of OpenAI’s two top executives on that front – and the dissolution of their entire “risk mitigation” team — erased it. Not a good couple weeks for Sam.

This Altman episode, of course, followed fast on the heels of almighty Apple’s own humiliating gaffe with its now infamous iPad “Crush” video ad that literally crushes all of humanity’s creativity with a giant press for the sake of Apple’ “next big thing” — its slimmer iPad. Apple’s gaffe, and what it represents, are even more telling. If Apple – which trumpets itself as being the trusted home to creators – can be so tone deaf, then can it be sincerely doubted that an undercurrent of Silicon Valley indifference to creators’ interests is to blame?

Hugh Grant and Justine Bateman took up the cause in sounding the alarm against the Apple ad, observing that the tech giant was crushing the entire creative community into one thin piece of technology. Enough was enough already. “The destruction of the human experience. Courtesy of Silicon Valley,” Hugh Grant wrote on X.

The Altman-Apple one-two generative AI gut punch reveals what we have known all along. Big Tech sees creators and their content as being just ingredients it needs to fuel its voracious and rapacious appetite. In Silicon Valley’s view, tech titans know what’s best for all of us and there’s no time to question how or why they do things. It’s all in the name of progress, right? Besides, as virtually all Big Tech CEOs have said, even if they slow down their own generative AI development, the “other guys” won’t – and they have shareholders to please. Damn the torpedoes! It’s time to get biggerer and biggerer, just like the Lorax in Dr. Seuss.

We’ve seen how this has all played out before. Big Tech’s relentless thirst for dollars in the name of progress created the ad-driven social media ecosystem that has divided our country and decimated so many young lives. Do we have any doubt that Big Tech’s unchecked DNA could lead to similar harms, perhaps at an even greater disruptive level?

So – good for Johansson because she single-handedly hit the panic button and caused Altman to blink and reveal who he really is. Altman famously said this in a The New Yorker interview in 2016: “When I realized that intelligence can be simulated, I let the idea of our uniqueness go, and it wasn’t as traumatic as I thought.” In other words, sentience is sentience, regardless of whether it is human or artificial. It’s all the same in his book. I assume he would say the same thing about human and AI “creativity” as well.

Now it’s time for “Big Media” – the major studios, streamers, record labels, game companies, publishers – to follow Johansson’s lead and magnify the issue of Big Tech’s wholesale theft. Unified collective action can best lead to both a more equitable sharing of the generative AI pie going forward and significant payments for Big Tech’s past misdeeds of scraping copyrighted works without consent or compensation. We see signs of progress in the wake of Johansson’s fight. President Tino Gagliardi of the American Federation of Musicians called on all creatives to understand what’s at stake. “[I]f someone can try and do this to one of the most famous actresses in the world, they can absolutely do it to anyone.”

And rather than fight or dismiss the creative community at every turn, Big Tech should welcome it. It’s in Silicon Valley’s best interests to listen to the creative community’s concerns early when transformational technology is born rather than wait for blowback and resistance. That friction only slows down the progress that they so desperately seek. Inclusion and recognition of value – rather than entitlement and taking – will lead to a generative AI world that works for all.

And creators, one more thing. The licensing deals Big Tech is offering today – like OpenAI’s reported $250 million five-year licensing deal with News Corp – may sound like big numbers today. But my bet is that those numbers will seem like trifles to the overall value generated by Big Tech with your IP over that period of time. Remember, Google bought YouTube – which built its initial value largely by enabling infringement of copyrighted works — for $1.65 billion in 2006. Now Google is valued at nearly $2.2 trillion. Assuming YouTube represents only 20% of Google’s overall value, that’s still $440 billion.

That’s the power of content.

Reach out to Peter at For those of you interested in learning more, sign up to his “the brAIn” newsletter, visit his firm Creative Media at, and follow him on Threads @pcsathy.

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