“Mob” Mentality: The Push for Unionization of Anime Voice Actors

By: Nicholas Neathamer

Whether you’re just hearing about it or are already a raving fan, the popularity of anime continues to skyrocket. Anime is a style of Japanese film and television animation that has garnered worldwide fans for decades, but the emergence of streaming platforms and their willingness to embrace the medium has given rise to booming demand for anime content in recent years. The market size of the anime industry has steadily risen over time and is expected to generate revenue of over $47 billion by 2028. Despite the overwhelming success of the industry, one often overlooked factor of an anime’s popularity is its cast of voice actors, who bring animated characters to life through dialogue. Existing in further obscurity are the voice actors who “dub” shows and movies, providing voiceover work in various languages to attract viewers around the world. These ‘dubbing’ voice actors often provide services for streaming platforms such as Netflix, Hulu, and anime-exclusive platform Crunchyroll. One of Crunchyroll’s most popular shows is currently Mob Psycho 100, and the platform recently began airing the anime’s third and final season. 

Despite Mob Psycho 100’s popularity, one of the most incendiary issues in the anime world recently has been Crunchyroll’s recasting of the show’s English voice for the protagonist. Kyle McCarley, the original English dubbing voice actor for the titular Shigeo “Mob” Kageyama, was informed by Crunchyroll that he would not be returning as the English voice of Mob. According to McCarley, the fallout was due to the actor’s request that after this final season of Mob Psycho 100, Crunchyroll would meet with union representatives to negotiate a potential contract for future productions. McCarley is part of the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), an American labor union representing actors, voiceover artists, journalists, singers, radio personalities, and other media professionals. Crunchyroll currently chooses to not work with any SAG-AFTRA contracts, and McCarley’s proposal for a future union contract was allegedly enough for the streaming platform to look for a new lead voice for Mob Psycho 100. 

It’s no mystery as to why a company like Crunchyroll wouldn’t want to work with unionized voice actors. Unions like SAG-AFTRA are often able to secure more favorable terms for union members through the use of collective bargaining and standard contracts, such as SAG-AFTRA’s Dubbing Agreement. Entering into union contracts would bind Crunchyroll to pay voice actors at scheduled minimum payment rates, contribute to pension and health plans, and follow additional rules set forth by the union. Unionized labor forces are also able to more effectively go on strike against employers to push for higher compensation or new terms to their contracts. In particular, SAG-AFTRA voice actors went on strike against large video game publishers in 2016, arguing for residuals, transparency in roles, higher safety precautions, and better safety assurances for actors while on set. Rather than submit itself to such terms and the increased possibility of a strike, Crunchyroll has eschewed even the possibility of utilizing SAG-AFTRA talent. Instead, Crunchyroll hired non-union Ernesto Jason Liebrecht to voice the character of Mob.  

Some fans of Mob Psycho 100 have wondered whether McCarley can seek legal recourse after the recasting, including whether McCarley may have copyright protections over his portrayal of Mob. However, this is almost certainly not the case. In Garcia v. Google, Inc., a case from 2015, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit examined whether an individual actor or actress may claim copyright in his or her performance in a motion picture. The court looked to the Copyright Act, which states that “[c]opyright protection subsists…in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression…[including] motion pictures.” 17 U.S.C. § 102(a). The Act also states that such a fixation must be done “by or under the authority of the author.” 17 U.S.C. § 101. The court ultimately agreed with the Copyright Office, who explained that its “longstanding practices do not allow a copyright claim by an individual actor or actress in his or her performance contained within a motion picture” and that for copyright registration purposes, “a motion picture is a single integrated work” and an acting performance cannot be registered apart from the motion picture. Therefore, McCarley, also solely an actor, would not be able to claim copyright over his role.

Another question posed is whether Liebrecht’s portrayal of Mob violates McCarley’s rights under California’s statutory scheme or common law (as the company operates primarily out of that state), including whether Liebrecht is able to imitate McCarley’s voice for Mob. California Civil Code section 3344 provides that anyone who knowingly and without prior consent uses another’s voice or likeness in any manner, on or in products or goods, shall be liable for any damages sustained by those injured. However, this statute only explicitly covers the actual voice and not vocal sound-alikes. Meanwhile, under California’s common law, imitating another person’s voice can violate that person’s right of publicity, as seen in the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Midler v. Ford Motor Co. In that case, the court alluded to protections against imitations of a performer’s voice. The court held that “when a distinctive voice of a professional singer is widely known and deliberately imitated in order to sell a product, the sellers have appropriated what is not theirs” and have therefore committed a tort under California law. That said, such a narrow holding is unlikely to be applied to a performer such as McCarley, whose voice is not nearly as “widely known.” There also remains the issue that many may claim Liebrecht’s performance, while similar, is not an imitation of McCarley’s portrayal of Mob. 

While McCarley likely has no options to pursue legal recourse against Crunchyroll in this situation, there remains a silver lining for those who wish to see their favorite English dub actors be able to unionize more effectively. In 2019, Netflix reached out to SAG-AFTRA to negotiate a direct union agreement, leading to a 2019 agreement that included a Netflix-specific Dubbing Agreement. And on August 31, 2022, SAG-AFTRA members voted to ratify the successor contract, the 2022 SAG-AFTRA Netflix Agreement. This has further solidified the relationship between the streaming platform and union for dubbing contracts going forward, and has bolstered voice actors who work on dubs to continue a push for unionization. Looking down the road, the goodwill acquired by Netflix and push towards increased unionization may lead to a lack of dubbing talent—and a need to change policies—at Crunchyroll.