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China has its DrakeGPT moment as AI singer goes viral

Mandopop singer Stefanie Sun has gone viral on Bilibili, China's largest user-generated video streaming site. But the sudden revival of interest in Sun, who hasn't released an album since 2017, comes not from the artist having another moment of genius.

The songs that have attracted millions of views on Bilibili feature Sun's voice cloned by artificial intelligence, raising questions about copyright protection.

Reminiscing on the golden age of Mandarin pop music, tech-savvy Chinese internet users took the liberty of mimicking Sun's voice using singing voice conversion, a deep learning method that lets a user deliver one person's singing in another person's voice, and swap it into a compilation of Mandopop classics.

A search for "AI孙燕姿" ("AI Stefanie Sun") yields hundreds of videos on Bilibili uploaded within the last month. The most popular ones have amassed over one million views. WeChat Index, which tracks keywords across the super app's social and content ecosystem, shows that the term's trending score skyrocketed to 50,000 on May 5 from zero just two days before.

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Deepfake singing has captivated audiences in the West as well. In late April, an AI-generated song featuring the voices of The Weekend and Drake blew up on Spotify and TikTok. Grimes made a buzz by tweeting that she would split 50% of royalties on any successful AI-generated song using her voice.

As in the West, current copyright law in China does not have specific guidelines for AI-generated songs that rip off celebrity voices, but the country's regulators have been quick to formulate legal constraints on the synthetic technology field overall.

As Chinese tech firms raced to capitalize on breakthroughs in generative AI with their Midjourney and ChatGPT alternatives, China passed a regulation in November to set the tone for how the bleeding-edge technology should be used. Service providers are required to verify users' real identities and keep records of their illegal behavior, for example.

While Sun's deepfakes first took off on Bilibili, the Chinese haven for mashup videos, the series of works have been reposted to other major social media platforms, including Douyin, TikTok's Chinese version.

We've reached out to seek comment from Bilibili, Kuaishou (Douyin's rival) and Tencent Music Entertainment, which owns some of China's largest music streaming platforms.

Douyin is the quickest to address the legal implications of the explosion of AI content. The ByteDance-own company published this week a guideline on AI-generated content, which is largely based on China's new synthetic technology regulation.

Content uploaders should mark AI-generated content with "distinguishing labels" and are responsible for the "consequences" of such content, the short video platform's guideline reads. Any content that infringes on copyrights is prohibited and subject to "severe punishment" once detected by the platform.

The question is, then, whether songs made with tools that mimic singers' voices without their consent violate the artists' rights. Sun hasn't publicly responded to the dozens of songs created using her AI voice.

Generative AI has found adoption in helping to fill people's emotional void, whether it's used for remembering deceased loved ones or, in deepfake Sun's case, addressing the dearth of good Mandopop today. As one AI product manager tweeted: "It's like Sun's fans have suddenly entered the festival mode."