“Can I stop my former employer from using my voice on its answering service?”

Question: I was let go from my previous job in February, 2010. When I was let go, I informed the General Manager and the Human Resources Manager that I wanted my voice taken off the main answering machine, and his office answering machine.

The General Manager snickered, and I said, “If you want to pay me to use my voice, that’s fine.” He said, “No.” I gave him one week to remove it. As of this date, my voice is still there.

What can I do? What rights do I have, if any? Thank you.

C.M.
Manteca, California

Answer: Dear C.M.: Here’s the story:      

1. First, California has a law prohibiting the use of a person’s voice without their prior consent. Probably because so many celebrities make their home in California, it has a strict law prohibiting the use of a person’s (a) name, (b) voice, (c) signature, (d) photograph, and (e) likeness. It is California Civil Code Section 3344(a). A few other states, including New York and Massachusetts, also have similar laws. California’s law imposes a penalty of the greater of (i) $750 or (ii) an aggrieved persons actual damages, on the wrongdoer.  

2. That said, it is my expectation that you did, in fact, give your prior consent when you were still an employee of the company. From what you have written, and from my own experience, it is my expectation that, when you placed your voice on the answering machines, you did, in fact, give your former employer “prior consent” to its use. I mean, surely when you recorded the message, you must have known it was going to be used. Can a person then, later, withdraw that consent, once it is given? The law does not say, but the use of the words “prior consent” in the law suggests that, once given, consent cannot be withdrawn in order to make any further use capable of characterization as “without prior consent.” The law, though, is not “black and white” on that issue.

3. However, I do suggest you make a formal, written request to your former General Manager, and cite this law, demanding they “Cease and Desist.” I strongly recommend that you send a stern letter to your former employer, citing this California law, formally demanding the use of your voice “cease and desist,” which means be discontinued. If you can get an attorney-friend to write such a letter for you, all the better. Just the thought of having to hire an attorney to defend against such a lawsuit, if brought, even in a Small Claims court, may well convince your former General Manager to cease his snickering, and just do what is right. In fact, sending the letter to the CEO or Board Chairman might just embarrass your former General Manager into acting more grown up than he has to date on this subject.

We do offer a Model Letter entitled “Cease and Desist Use of Name and Photo” that could easily be adapted to your circumstances. If interested, simply [click here].

C.M., I hope this is helpful. At a very minimum, there is personal satisfaction in standing up for yourself to a former employer who “snickers” when asked to engage in a simple task that would be nothing more than doing the “right thing.” I encourage you to do it.

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Best,
Al Sklover

 Repairing the World,
One Empowered and Productive Employee at a Time ™ 

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