Case Update: Andersen v. Stability AI

Artists Sarah Andersen, Kelly McKernan, and Karla Ortiz filed a class action lawsuit against Stability AI, DeviantArt, and MidJourney in federal district court alleging causes of action for copyright infringement, removal or alteration of copyright management information, and violation of publicity rights. (Andersen, et al. v. Stability AI Ltd. et al., No. 23-cv-00201-WHO (N.D. Calif. 2023).) The claims relate to the defendants’ alleged unlicensed use of their copyright-protected artistic works in generative-AI systems.

On October 30, 2023, U.S. district judge William H. Orrick dismissed all claims except for Andersen’s direct infringement claim against Stability. Most of the dismissals, however, were granted with leave to amend.

The Claims

McKernan’s and Ortiz’s copyright infringement claims

The judge dismissed McKernan’s and Ortiz’s copyright infringement claims because they did not register the copyrights in their works with the U.S. Copyright Office.

I criticized the U.S. requirement of registration as a prerequisite to the enforcement of a domestic copyright in a U.S. court in a 2019 Illinois Law Review article (“Copyright Enforcement: Time to Abolish the Pre-Litigation Registration Requirement.”) This is a uniquely American requirement. Moreover, the requirement does not apply to foreign works. This has resulted in the anomaly that foreign authors have an easier time enforcing the copyrights in their works in the United States than U.S. authors do. Nevertheless, until Congress acts to change this, it is still necessary for U.S. authors to register their copyrights with the U.S. Copyright Office before they can enforce their copyrights in U.S. courts.  

Since there was no claim that McKernan or Ortiz had registered their copyrights, the judge had no real choice under current U.S. copyright law but to dismiss their claims.

Andersen’s copyright infringement claim against Stability

Andersen’s complaint alleges that she “owns a copyright interest in over two hundred Works included in the Training Data” and that Stability used some of them as training data. Defendants moved to dismiss this claim because it failed to specifically identify which of those works had been registered. The judge, however, determined that her attestation that some of her registered works had been used as training images sufficed, for pleading purposes.  A motion to dismiss tests the sufficiency of a complaint to state a claim; it does not test the truth or falsity of the assertions made in a pleading. Stability can attempt to disprove the assertion later in the proceeding. Accordingly, Judge Orrick denied Stability’s motion to dismiss Andersen’s direct copyright infringement claim.

Andersen’s copyright infringement claims against DeviantArt and MidJourney

The complaint alleges that Stability created and released a software program called Stable Diffusion and that it downloaded copies of billions of copyrighted images (known as “training images”), without permission, to create it. Stability allegedly used the services of LAION (LargeScale Artificial Intelligence Open Network) to scrape the images from the Internet. Further, the complaint alleges, Stable Diffusion is a “software library” providing image-generating service to the other defendants named in the complaint. DeviantArt offers an online platform where artists can upload their works. In 2022, it released a product called “DreamUp” that relies on Stable Diffusion to produce images. The complaint alleges that artwork the plaintiffs uploaded to the DeviantArt site was scraped into the LAION database and then used to train Stable Diffusion. MidJourney is also alleged to have used the Stable Diffusion library.

Judge Orrick granted the motion to dismiss the claims of direct infringement against DeviantArt and MidJourney, with leave to amend the complaint to clarify the theory of liability.

DMCA claims

The complaint makes allegations about unlawful removal of copyright management information in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Judge Orrick found the complaint deficient in this respect, but granted leave to amend to clarify which defendant(s) are alleged to have done this, when it allegedly occurred, and what specific copyright management information was allegedly removed.

Publicity rights claims

 Plaintiffs allege that the defendants used their names in their products by allowing users to request the generation of artwork “in the style of” their names. Judge Orrick determined the complaint did not plead sufficient factual allegations to state a claim. Accordingly, he dismissed the claim, with leave to amend. In a footnote, the court deferred to a later time the question whether the Copyright Act preempts the publicity claims.

In addition, DeviantArt filed a motion to strike under California’s Anti-SLAPP statute. The court deferred decision on that motion until after the Plaintiffs have had time to file an amended complaint.

Unfair competition claims

The court also dismissed plaintiffs’ claims of unfair competition, with leave to amend.

Breach of contract claim against DeviantArt

Plaintiffs allege that DeviantArt violated its own Terms of Service in connection with their DreamUp product and alleged scraping of works users upload to the site. This claim, too, was dismissed with leave to amend.


Media reports have tended to overstate the significance of Judge Orrick’s October 30, 2023 Order. Reports of the death of the lawsuit are greatly exaggerated. It would have been nice if greater attention had been paid to the registration requirement during the drafting of the complaint, but the lawsuit nevertheless is still very much alive. We won’t really know whether it will remain that way unless and until the plaintiffs amend the complaint – which they are almost certainly going to do.

Need help with copyright registration? Contact attorney Tom James.

The Top 3 Generative-AI Copyright Issues

Black hole consuming a star. Photo credit: NASA.

What are your favorite generative-AI copyright issues? In this capsule summary, Cokato attorney Tom James shares what his three favorites are.

Generative artificial intelligence refers collectively to technology that is capable of generating new text, images, audio/visual and possibly other content in response to a user’s prompts. They are trained by feeding them mass quantities of ABC (already-been-created) works. Some of America’s biggest mega-corporations have invested billions of dollars into this technology. They are now facing a barrage of lawsuits, most of them asserting claims of copyright infringement.

Issue #1: Does AI Output Infringe Copyrights?

Copyrights give their owners an exclusive right to reproduce their copyright-protected works and to create derivative works based on them. If a generative-AI user prompts the service to reproduce the text of a pre-existing work, and it proceeds to do so, this could implicate the exclusive right of reproduction. If a generative-AI user prompts it to create a work in the style of another work and/or author, this could implicate the exclusive right to create derivative works.

To establish infringement, it will be necessary to prove copying. Two identical but independently created works may each be protected by copyright. Put another way, a person is not guilty of infringement merely by creating a work that is identical or similar to another if he/she/it came up with it completely on his/her/its own.

Despite “training” their proteges on existing works, generative-AI outfits deny that their tools actually copy any of them. They say that any similarity to any existing works, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Thus, OpenAI has stated that copyright infringement “is an unlikely accidental outcome.”

The “accidental outcome” defense seems to me like a hard one to swallow in those cases where a prompt involves creating a story involving a specified fictional character that enjoys copyright protection. If the character is distinctive enough — and a piece of work in and of itself, so to speak — to enjoy copyright protection (such as, say, Mr. Spock from the Star Trek series), then any generated output would seem to be an unauthorized derivative work, at least if the AI tool is any good.

If AI output infringes a copyright in an existing work, who would be liable for it? Potentially, the person who entered the prompt might be held liable for direct infringement. The AI tool provider might arguably be liable for contributory infringement.

Issue #2: Does AI Training Infringe Copyrights?

AI systems are “trained” to create works by exposing a computer program system to large numbers of existing works downloaded from the Internet.

When content is downloaded from the Internet, a copy of it is made. This process will “involve the reproduction of entire works or substantial portions thereof.” OpenAI, for example, acknowledges that its programs are trained on “large, publicly available datasets that include copyrighted works” and that this process “involves first making copies of the data to be analyzed….” Making these copies without permission may infringe the copyright holders’ exclusive right to make reproductions of their works.

Generative-AI outfits tend to argue that the training process is fair use.

Fair use claims require consideration of four statutory factors:

  • the purpose and character of the use;
  • the nature of the work copied;
  • the amount and substantiality of the portion copied; and
  • the effect on the market for the work.

OpenAI relies on the precedent set in Authors Guild v. Google for its invocation of “fair use.” That case involved Google’s copying of the entire text of books to construct its popular searchable database.

A number of lawsuits currently pending in the courts are raising the question whether and how, the AI training process is “fair use.”

Issue #3: Are AI-Generated Works Protected by Copyright?

The Copyright Act affords copyright protection to “original works of authorship.” The U.S. Copyright Office recognizes copyright only in works “created by a human being.” Courts, too, have declined to extend copyright protection to nonhuman authors. (Remember the monkey selfie case?) A recent copyright registration applicant has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Copyright Office alleging that the Office wrongfully denied registration of an AI-generated work. A federal court has now rejected his argument that human authorship is not required for copyright ownership.

In March 2023, the Copyright Office released guidance stating that when AI “determines the expressive elements of its output, the generated material is not the product of human authorship.” Moreover, an argument might be made that a general prompt, such as “create a story about a dog in the style of Jack London,” is an idea, not expression. It is well settled that only expression gets copyright protection; ideas do not.

In September 2023, the Copyright Office Review Board affirmed the Office’s refusal to register a copyright in a work that was generated by Midjourney and then modified by the applicant, on the basis that the applicant did not disclaim the AI-generated material.

The Office also has the power to cancel improvidently granted registrations. (Words to the wise: Disclose and disclaim.)

These are my favorite generative-AI legal issues. What are yours?

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