In a product demo last week, OpenAI showcased a synthetic but expressive voice for ChatGPT called “Sky” that reminded many viewers of the flirty AI girlfriend Samantha played by Scarlett Johansson in the 2013 film Her. One of those viewers was Johansson herself, who promptly hired legal counsel and sent letters to OpenAI demanding an explanation, according to a statement released later. In response, the company on Sunday halted use of Sky and published a blog post insisting that it “is not an imitation of Scarlett Johansson but belongs to a different professional actress using her own natural speaking voice.”

Johansson’s statement, released Monday, said she was “shocked, angered, and in disbelief” by OpenAI’s demo using a voice she called “so eerily similar to mine that my closest friends and news outlets could not tell the difference.” Johansson revealed that she had turned down a request last year from the company’s CEO, Sam Altman, to voice ChatGPT and that he had reached out again two days before last week’s demo in an attempt to change her mind.

It’s unclear if Johansson plans to take additional legal action against OpenAI. Her counsel on the dispute with OpenAI is John Berlinski, a partner at Los Angeles law firm Bird Marella, who represented her in a lawsuit against Disney claiming breach of contract, settled in 2021. (OpenAI’s outside counsel working on this matter is Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati partner David Kramer, who is based in Silicon Valley and has defended Google and YouTube on copyright infringement cases.) If Johansson does pursue a claim against OpenAI, some intellectual property experts suspect it could focus on “right of publicity” laws, which protect people from having their name or likeness used without authorization.

James Grimmelmann, a professor of digital and internet law at Cornell University, believes Johansson could have a good case. “You can’t imitate someone else’s distinctive voice to sell stuff,” he says. OpenAI declined to comment for this story, but yesterday released a statement from Altman claiming Sky “was never intended to resemble” the star, adding, “We are sorry to Ms. Johansson that we didn’t communicate better.”

Johansson’s dispute with OpenAI drew notice in part because the company is embroiled in a number of lawsuits brought by artists and writers. They allege that the company breached copyright by using creative work to train AI models without first obtaining permission. But copyright law would be unlikely to play a role for Johansson, as one cannot copyright a voice. “It would be right of publicity,” says Brian L. Frye, a professor at the University of Kentucky’s College of Law focusing on intellectual property. “She’d have no other claims.”

Several lawyers WIRED spoke with said a case Bette Midler brought against Ford Motor Company and its advertising agency Young & Rubicam in the late 1980s provides a legal precedent. After turning down the ad agency’s offers to perform one of her songs in a car commercial, Midler sued when the company hired one of her backup singers to impersonate her sound. “Ford was basically trying to profit from using her voice,” says Jennifer E. Rothman, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who wrote a 2018 book called The Right of Publicity: Privacy Reimagined for a Public World. “Even though they didn’t literally use her voice, they were instructing someone to sing in a confusingly similar manner to Midler.”

It doesn’t matter whether a person’s actual voice is used in an imitation or not, Rothman says, only whether that audio confuses listeners. In the legal system, there is a big difference between imitation and simply recording something “in the style” of someone else. “No one owns a style,” she says.

Other legal experts don’t see what OpenAI did as a clear-cut impersonation. “I think that any potential ‘right of publicity’ claim from Scarlett Johansson against OpenAI would be fairly weak given the only superficial similarity between the ‘Sky’ actress’ voice and Johansson, under the relevant case law,” Colorado law professor Harry Surden wrote on X on Tuesday. Frye, too, has doubts. “OpenAI didn’t say or even imply it was offering the real Scarlett Johansson, only a simulation. If it used her name or image to advertise its product, that would be a right-of-publicity problem. But merely cloning the sound of her voice probably isn’t,” he says.

But that doesn’t mean OpenAI is necessarily in the clear. “Juries are unpredictable,” Surden added.

Frye is also uncertain how any case might play out, because he says right of publicity is a fairly “esoteric” area of law. There are no federal right-of-publicity laws in the United States, only a patchwork of state statutes. “It’s a mess,” he says, although Johansson could bring a suit in California, which has fairly robust right-of-publicity laws.

OpenAI’s chances of defending a right-of-publicity suit could be weakened by a one-word post on X—“her”—from Sam Altman on the day of last week’s demo. It was widely interpreted as a reference to Her and Johansson’s performance. “It feels like AI from the movies,” Altman wrote in a blog post that day.

To Grimmelmann at Cornell, those references weaken any potential defense OpenAI might mount claiming the situation is all a big coincidence. “They intentionally invited the public to make the identification between Sky and Samantha. That’s not a good look,” Grimmelmann says. “I wonder whether a lawyer reviewed Altman’s ‘her’ tweet.” Combined with Johansson’s revelations that the company had indeed attempted to get her to provide a voice for its chatbots—twice over—OpenAI’s insistence that Sky is not meant to resemble Samantha is difficult for some to believe.

“It was a boneheaded move,” says David Herlihy, a copyright lawyer and music industry professor at Northeastern University. “A miscalculation.”

Other lawyers see OpenAI’s behavior as so manifestly goofy they suspect the whole scandal might be a deliberate stunt—that OpenAI judged that it could trigger controversy by going forward with a sound-alike after Johansson declined to participate but that the attention it would receive from seemed to outweigh any consequences. “What’s the point? I say it’s publicity,” says Purvi Patel Albers, a partner at the law firm Haynes Boone who often takes intellectual property cases. “The only compelling reason—maybe I’m giving them too much credit—is that everyone’s talking about them now, aren’t they?”