Music

Did Drake Use AI to Say FU to Artists Rights?

Only one word really describes Drake’s shift from objecting to an AI impersonation of him to using similar technology to add imitations of 2Pac and Snoop Dogg to his Kendrick Lamar diss track “Taylor Made Freestyle”: Chutzpah. (Drake had a bar-mitzvah-themed 31st birthday party, so he probably knows the term.) Last year around this time, the infamous “Heart on My Sleeve,” which featured AI vocal imitations of Drake and The Weeknd, shifted the debate about music and AI into high gear. Ever since, industry lobbyists and artists rights groups have been pushing legislation to regulate generative AI technology based on concepts of rights and permissions. Now Drake goes and blatantly breaks the main principle involved. It’s like something out of a political attack ad: He was against this before he was for it!

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To me, using artists’ voices without their permission is wrong and it’s even more wrong — creepier — if the artist in question died relatively recently. The legal situation around this, and AI in general, is in flux, though. Tennessee’s ELVIS Act just passed, and a few federal bills have significant support. But the main point of the ELVIS Act and most of the recently proposed legislation is to impose penalties for exactly the kind of thing Drake did.

And Drake, who must know these laws are necessary because a year ago they would have helped him, just made it harder to pass them. Imagine you’re a music business lobbyist who spent the last year explaining to members of Congress how important it is to protect the unique sounds of particular performers and then suddenly one of the biggest artists in the world goes ahead and violates every principle you’ve been discussing. Forget about Lamar — where’s the diss track from the RIAA?

It’s hard to say for sure whether what Drake did was illegal because laws vary by state — that’s why we need federal legislation in the first place. But Drake seems to have released the recording without his label, Republic Records, a subsidiary of Universal Music Group, which could indicate some concerns. (A representative for Drake declined to comment and Universal did not respond to requests for comment.) And Tupac Shakur’s estate has threatened to sue if Drake doesn’t take the track offline. (Snoop Dogg’s reaction — “They did what? When? How? Are you sure?,” followed by a weary sigh — is a work of art in itself. 10/10, no notes.) Litigation could be complicated, though. The Shakur estate threatened to sue for a violation of Shakur’s right of publicity, as well as for copyright infringement, which may be harder but comes with high statutory damages.

Howard King, the lawyer for Shakur’s estate, lays out the issue in his cease-and-desist letter to Drake. “Not only is the record a flagrant violation of Tupac’s publicity and the estate’s legal rights,” King writes, “it is also a blatant abuse of the legacy of one of the greatest hip-hop artists of all time. The Estate would never have given its approval for this use.” The use of 2Pac’s voice was especially inappropriate, King suggests, since Lamar is “a good friend to the Estate who has given nothing but respect to Tupac.”

In music critic terms, Drake is using simulacra of 2Pac and Snoop to call out Lamar by implying that he’s unworthy of their legacy. In legal terms, this might violate Shakur and Snoop Dogg’s rights of publicity or likeness rights, and there are precedents that would suggest it does — Tom Waits and Bette Midler each won a case about (human) vocal imitation. In moral terms, this feels so wrong because it forces Shakur and Snoop to say something they would never have said in real life. In hip-hop, reputation is everything — you own your words in both senses of the term — and Snoop and Shakur have every right to guard theirs.

This might seem like an awfully pretentious way to talk about what will almost certainly be remembered as a minor track from a major artist. Are reputations really at stake? Doesn’t anyone with even the slightest interest in pop music know that Drake used AI?

That’s a very current way of thinking about a technology that’s evolving really fast. What happens when millions of hobbyist producers release thousands of songs with imitations of hundreds of artists? (There are fan-made AI tracks out there already.) Who’s to know who dissed whom, let alone who favors what politician or endorses which product? For that matter, what happens when this comes for politicians? You can’t regulate digital technology with the legal equivalent of an umbrella — you need to prepare for a flood.

The ELVIS Act and the EU AI legislation represent a good start for that preparation, and most of the federal legislation under discussion seems solid. Hopefully, by the time the flood hits, we’ll remember “Heart on My Sleeve” as the beginning of an important debate and “Taylor Made Freestyle” as an amusing aside.

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