Last year, the United States Copyright Office issued a copyright registration to Kristina Kashtanova for the graphic novel, Zarya of the Dawn. A month later, the Copyright Office issued a notice of cancellation of the registration, along with a request for additional information.
The Copyright Office, consistent with judicial decisions, takes the position that copyright requires human authorship. The Office requested additional information regarding the creative process that resulted in the novel because parts of it were AI-generated. Kashtanova complied with the request for additional information.
This week, the Copyright Office responded with a letter explaining that the registration would be cancelled, but that a new, more limited one will be issued. The Office explained that its concern related to the author’s use of Midjourney, an AI-powered image generating tool, to generate images used in the work:
Because Midjourney starts with randomly generated noise that evolves into a final image, there is no guarantee that a particular prompt will generate any particular visual output”U.S. Copyright Office letter
The Office concluded that the text the author wrote, as well as the author’s selection, coordination and arrangement of written and visual elements, are protected by copyright, and therefore may be registered. The images generated by Midjourney, however, would not be registered because they were “not the product of human authorship.” The new registration will cover only the text and editing components of the work, not the AI-generated images.
A Previous Entrance to Paradise
Early last year, the Copyright Office refused copyright registration for an AI-generated image. Steven Thaler had filed an application to register a copyright in an AI-generated image called “A Recent Entrance to Paradise.” He listed himself as the copyright owner. The Copyright Office denied registration on the grounds that the work lacked human authorship. Thaler filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to overturn that determination. The lawsuit is still pending. It is currently at the summary judgment stage.
The core issue
The core issue, of course, is whether a person who uses AI to generate content such as text or artwork can claim copyright protection in the content so generated. Put another way, can a user who deploys artificial intelligence to generate a seemingly expressive work (such as artwork or a novel) claim authorship?
This question is not as simple as it may seem. There can be 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. Text and images can be generated by these systems with minimal human input. If the only human input is a user’s directive to “Write a story” or “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.
Peering into the worm can
The complicating consideration with content-generative AI mechanisms is that they have the potential to allow many different levels of user involvement in the generation of output. The more details a user adds to the instructions s/he gives to the machine, the more it begins to appear that the user is, in fact, contributing something creative to the project.
Is a prompt to “Write a story about a dog” a sufficiently creative contribution to the resulting output to qualify the user as an “author”? Maybe not. But what about, “Write a story about a dog who joins a traveling circus”? Or “Write a story about a dog named Pablo who joins a traveling circus”? Or “Write a story about a dog with a peculiar bark that begins, ‘Once upon a time, there was a dog named Pablo who joined a circus,’ and ends with Pablo deciding to return home”?
At what point along the spectrum of user-provided detail does copyright protectable authorship come into existence?
A question that is just as important to ask is: How much, if at all, should the Copyright Office involve itself with ascertaining the details of the creative process that were involved in a work?
In a similar vein, should copyright registration applicants be required to disclose whether their works contain AI-generated content? Should they be required to affirmatively disclaim rights in elements of AI-generated content that are not protected by copyright?
Expanding the Rule of Doubt
Alternatively, should the U.S. Copyright Office adopt something like a Rule of Doubt when copyright is claimed in AI-generated content? The Rule of Doubt, in its current form, is the rule that the U.S. Copyright Office will accept a copyright registration of a claim containing software object code, even though the Copyright Office is unable to verify whether the object code contains copyrightable work. If effect, if the applicant attests that the code is copyrightable, then the Copyright Office will assume that it is and will register the claim. Under 37 C.F.R. § 202.20(c)(2)(vii)(B), this may be done when an applicant seeks to register a copyright in object code rather than source code. The same is true of material that is redacted to protect a trade secret.
When the Office issues a registration under the Rule of Doubt, it adds an annotation to the certificate and to the public record indicating that the copyright was registered under the Rule of Doubt.
Under the existing rule, the applicant must file a declaration stating that material for which registration is sought does, in fact, contain original authorship.
This approach allows registration but leaves it to courts (not the Copyright Office) to decide on a case-by-case basis whether material for which copyright is claimed contains copyrightable authorship.
Expanding the Rule of Doubt to apply to material generated at least in part by AI might not be the most satisfying solution for AI users, but it is one that could result in fewer snags and delays in the registration process.
The Copyright Office has said that it soon will be developing registration guidance for works created in part using material generated by artificial intelligence technology. Public notices and events relating to this topic may be expected in the coming months.