Over a year ago, Steven Thaler filed an application with the United States Copyright Office to register a copyright in an AI-generated image called “A Recent Entrance to Paradise.” In the application, he listed a machine as the “author” and himself as the copyright owner. The Copyright Office refused registration on the grounds that the work lacked human authorship. Thaler then filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to overturn that determination. On August 18, 2023 the court upheld the Copyright Office’s refusal of registration. The case is Thaler v. Perlmutter, No. CV 22-1564 (BAH), 2023 WL 5333236 (D.D.C. Aug. 18, 2023).
Read more about the history of this case in my previous blog post, “A Recent Entrance to Complexity.”
The Big Bright Green Creativity Machine
In his application for registration, Thaler had listed his computer, referred to as “Creativity Machine,” as the “author” of the work, and himself as a claimant. The Copyright Office denied registration on the basis that copyright only protects human authorship.
Taking the Copyright Office to court
Unsuccessful in securing a reversal through administrative appeals, Thaler filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming the Office’s denial of registration was “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion and not in accordance with the law….”
The court ultimately sided with the Copyright Office. In its decision, it provided a cogent explanation of the rationale for the human authorship requirement:
The act of human creation—and how to best encourage human individuals to engage in that creation, and thereby promote science and the useful arts—was thus central to American copyright from its very inception. Non-human actors need no incentivization with the promise of exclusive rights under United States law, and copyright was therefore not designed to reach them.
A Complex Issue
As I discussed in a previous blog post, the issue is not as simple as it might seem. There are different levels of human involvement in the use of an AI content generating mechanism. At one extreme, there are programs like “Paint,” in which users provide a great deal of input. These kinds of programs may be analogized to paintbrushes, pens and other tools that artists traditionally have used to express their ideas on paper or canvas. Word processing programs are also in this category. It is easy to conclude that the users of these kinds of programs are the authors of works that may be sufficiently creative and original to receive copyright protection.
At the other end of the spectrum are AI services like DALL-E and ChatGPT. These tools are capable of generating content with very little user input. If the only human input is a user’s directive to “Draw a picture,” then it would be difficult to claim that the author contributed any creative expression. That is to say, it would be difficult to claim that the user authored anything.
The difficult question – and one that is almost certain to be the subject of ongoing litigation and probably new Copyright Office regulations – is exactly how much, and what kind of, human input is necessary before a human can claim authorship. Equally as perplexing is how much, if at all, the Copyright Office should involve itself in ascertaining and evaluating the details of the process by which a work was created. And, of course, what consequences should flow from an applicant’s failure to disclose complete details about the nature and extent of machine involvement in the creative process.
The court in this case did not dive into these issues. The only thing we can safely take away from this decision is the broad proposition that a work is not protected by copyright to the extent it is generated by a machine.