Generative-AI as Unfair Trade Practice

While Congress and the courts grapple with generative-AI copyright issues, the FTC weighs in on the risks of unfair competition, monopolization, and consumer deception.

Federal Trade Commission headline as illustration for Thomas James article
FTC Press Release exceprt

While Congress and the courts are grappling with the copyright issues that AI has generated, the federal government’s primary consumer watchdog has made a rare entry into the the realm of copyright law. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has filed a Comment with the U.S. Copyright Office suggesting that generative-AI could be (or be used as) an unfair or deceptive trade practice. The Comment was filed in response to the Copyright Office’s request for comments as it prepares to begin rule-making on the subject of artificial intelligence (AI), particularly, generative-AI.

Monopolization

The FTC is responsible for enforcing the FTC Act, which broadly prohibits “unfair or deceptive” practices. The Act protects consumers from deceptive and unscrupulous business practices. It is also intended to promote fair and healthy competition in U.S. markets. The Supreme Court has held that all violations of the Sherman Act also violate the FTC Act.

So how does generative-AI raise monopolization concerns? The Comment suggests that incumbents in the generative-AI industry could engage in anti-competitive behavior to ensure continuing and exclusive control over the use of the technology. (More on that here.)

The agency cited the usual suspects: bundling, tying, exclusive or discriminatory dealing, mergers, acquisitions. Those kinds of concerns, of course, are common in any business sector. They are not unique to generative-AI. The FTC also described some things that are matters of special concern in the AI space, though.

Network effects

Because positive feedback loops improve the performance of generative-AI, it gets better as more people use it. This results in concentrated market power in incumbent generative-AI companies with diminishing possibilities for new entrants to the market. According to the FTC, “network effects can supercharge a company’s ability and incentive to engage in unfair methods of competition.”

Platform effects

As AI users come to be dependent on a particular incumbent generative-AI platform, the company that owns the platform could take steps to lock their customers into using their platform exclusively.

Copyrights and AI competition

The FTC Comment indicates that the agency is not only weighing the possibility that AI unfairly harms creators’ ability to compete. (The use of pirated or the misuse of copyrighted materials can be an unfair method of competition under Section 5 of the FTC Act.) It is also considering that generative-AI may deceive, or be used to deceive, consumers. Specifically, the FTC expressed a concern that “consumers may be deceived when authorship does not align with consumer expectations, such as when a consumer thinks a work has been created by a particular musician or other artist, but it has been generated by someone else using an AI tool.” (Comment, page 5.)

In one of my favorite passages in the Comment, the FTC suggests that training AI on protected expression without consent, or selling output generated “in the style of” a particular writer or artist, may be an unfair method of competition, “especially when the copyright violation deceives consumers, exploits a creator’s reputation or diminishes the value of her existing or future works….” (Comment, pages 5 – 6).

Fair Use

The significance of the FTC’s injection of itself into the generative-AI copyright fray cannot be overstated. It is extremely likely that during their legislative and rule-making deliberations, both Congress and the Copyright Office are going to be focusing the lion’s share of their attention on the fair use doctrine. They are most likely going to try to allow generative-AI outfits to continue to infringe copyrights (It is already a multi-billion-dollar industry, after all, and with obvious potential political value), while at the same time imposing at least some kinds of limitations to preserve a few shards of the copyright system. Maybe they will devise a system of statutory licensing like they did when online streaming — and the widespread copyright infringement it facilitated– became a thing.

Whatever happens, the overarching question for Congress is going to be, “What kinds of copyright infringement should be considered “fair” use.

Copyright fair use normally is assessed using a four-prong test set out in the Copyright Act. Considerations about unfair competition arguably are subsumed within the fourth factor in that analysis – the effect the infringing use has on the market for the original work.

The other objective of the FTC Act – protecting consumers from deception — does not neatly fit into one of the four statutory factors for copyright fair use. I believe a good argument can be made that it should come within the coverage of the first prong of the four-factor test: the purpose and character of the use. The task for Congress and the Copyright Office, then, should be to determine which particular purposes and kinds of uses of generative-AI should be thought of as fair. There is no reason the Copyright Office should avoid considering Congress’s objectives, expressed in the FTC Act and other laws, when making that determination.

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.

Conclusion

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.

AI Legislative Update

Congressional legislation to regulate artificial intelligence (“AI”) and AI companies is in the early formative stages. Just about the only thing that is certain at this point is that federal regulation in the United States is coming.

Congressional legislation to regulate artificial intelligence (“AI”) and AI companies is in the early formative stages. Just about the only thing that is certain at this point is that federal regulation in the United States is coming.

In August, 2023, Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) introduced a Bipartisan Framework for U.S. AI Act. The Framework sets out five bullet points identifying Congressional legislative objectives:

  • Establish a federal regulatory regime implemented through licensing AI companies, to include requirements that AI companies provide information about their AI models and maintain “risk management, pre-deployment testing, data governance, and adverse incident reporting programs.”
  • Ensure accountability for harms through both administrative enforcement and private rights of action, where “harms” include private or civil right violations. The Framework proposes making Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act inapplicable to these kinds of actions. (Second 230 is the provision that generally grants immunity to Facebook, Google and other online service providers for user-provided content.) The Framework identifies the harms about which it is most concerned as “explicit deepfake imagery of real people, production of child sexual abuse material from generative A.I. and election interference.” Noticeably absent is any mention of harms caused by copyright infringement.
  • Restrict the sharing of AI technology with Russia, China or other “adversary nations.”
  • Promote transparency: The Framework would require AI companies to disclose information about the limitations, accuracy and safety of their AI models to users; would give consumers a right to notice when they are interacting with an AI system; would require providers to watermark or otherwise disclose AI-generated deepfakes; and would establish a public database of AI-related “adverse incidents” and harm-causing failures.
  • Protect consumers and kids. “Consumer should have control over how their personal data is used in A.I. systems and strict limits should be imposed on generative A.I. involving kids.”

The Framework does not address copyright infringement, whether of the input or the output variety.

The Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law held a hearing on September 12, 2023. Witnesses called to testify generally approved of the Framework as a starting point.

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Data Security also held a hearing on September 12, called The Need for Transparency in Artificial Intelligence. One of the witnesses, Dr. Ramayya Krishnan, Carnegie Mellon University, did raise a concern about the use of copyrighted material by AI systems and the economic harm it causes for creators.

On September 13, 2023, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) held an “AI Roundtable.” Invited attendees present at the closed-door session included Bill Gates (Microsoft), Elon Musk (xAI, Neuralink, etc.) Sundar Pichai (Google), Charlie Rivkin (MPA), and Mark Zuckerberg (Meta). Gates, whose Microsoft company, like those headed by some of the other invitees, has been investing heavily in generative-AI development, touted the claim that AI could target world hunger.

Meanwhile, Dana Rao, Adobe’s Chief Trust Officer, penned a proposal that Congress establish a federal anti-impersonation right to address the economic harms generative-AI causes when it impersonates the style or likeness of an author or artist. The proposed law would be called the Federal Anti-Impersonation Right Act, or “FAIR Act,” for short. The proposal would provide for the recovery of statutory damages by artists who are unable to prove actual economic damages.

Generative AI: Perfect Tool for the Age of Deception

For many reasons, the new millennium might well be described as the Age of Deception. Cokato Copyright Attorney Tom James explains why generative-AI is a perfect fit for it.

Illustrating generative AI
Image by Gerd Altmann on Pixabay.

What is generative AI?

“AI,” of course, stands for artificial intelligence. Generative AI is a variety of it that can produce content such as text and images, seemingly of its own creation. I say “seemingly” because in reality these kinds of AI tools are not really independently creating these images and lines of text. Rather, they are “trained” to emulate existing works created by humans. Essentially, they are derivative work generation machines that enable the creation of derivative works based on potentially millions of human-created works.

AI has been around for decades. It wasn’t until 2014, however, that the technology began to be refined to the point that it could generate text, images, video and audio so similar to real people and their creations that it is difficult, if not impossible, for the average person to tell the difference.

Rapid advances in the technology in the past few years have yielded generative-AI tools that can write entire stories and articles, seemingly paint artistic images, and even generate what appear to be photographic images of people.

AI “hallucinations” (aka lies)

In the AI field, a “hallucination” occurs when an AI tool (such as ChatGPT) generates a confident response that is not justified by the data on which it has been trained.

For example, I queried ChatGPT about whether a company owned equally by a husband and wife could qualify for the preferences the federal government sets aside for women-owned businesses. The chatbot responded with something along the lines of “Certainly” or “Absolutely,” explaining that the U.S. government is required to provide equal opportunities to all people without discriminating on the basis of sex, or something along those lines. When I cited the provision of federal law that contradicts what the chatbot had just asserted, it replied with an apology and something to the effect of “My bad.”

I also asked ChatGPT if any U.S. law imposes unequal obligations on male citizens. The chatbot cheerily reported back to me that no, no such laws exist. I then cited the provision of the United States Code that imposes an obligation to register for Selective Service only upon male citizens. The bot responded that while that is true, it is unimportant and irrelevant because there has not been a draft in a long time and there is not likely to be one anytime soon. I explained to the bot that this response was irrelevant. Young men can be, and are, denied the right to government employment and other civic rights and benefits if they fail to register, regardless of whether a draft is in place or not, and regardless of whether they are prosecuted criminally or not. At this point, ChatGPT announced that it would not be able to continue this conversation with me. In addition, it made up some excuse. I don’t remember what it was, but it was something like too many users were currently logged on.

These are all examples of AI hallucinations. If a human being were to say them, we would call them “lies.”

Generating lie after lie

AI tools regularly concoct lies. For example, when asked to generate a financial statement for a company, a popular AI tool falsely stated that the company’s revenue was some number it apparently had simply made up. According to Slate, in their article, “The Alarming Deceptions at the Heart of an Astounding New Chatbot,” users of large language models like ChatGPT have been complaining that these tools randomly insert falsehoods into the text they generate. Experts now consider frequent “hallucination” (aka lying) to be a major problem in chatbots.

ChatGPT has also generated fake case precedents, replete with plausible-sounding citations. This phenomenon made the news when Stephen Schwartz submitted six fake ChatGPT-generated case precedents in his brief to the federal district court for the Southern District of New York in Mata v. Avianca. Schwartz reported that ChatGPT continued to insist the fake cases were authentic even after their nonexistence was discovered. The judge proceeded to ban the submission of AI-generated filings that have not been reviewed by a human, saying that generative-AI tools

are prone to hallucinations and bias…. [T]hey make stuff up – even quotes and citations. Another issue is reliability or bias. While attorneys swear an oath to set aside their personal prejudices,… generative artificial intelligence is the product of programming devised by humans who did not have to swear such an oath. As such, these systems hold no allegiance to…the truth.

Judge Brantley Starr, Mandatory Certification Regarding Generative Artificial Intelligence.

Facilitating defamation

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act generally shields Facebook, Google and other online services from liability for providing a platform for users to publish false and defamatory information about other people. That has been a real boon for people who like to destroy other people’s reputations by means of spreading lies and misinformation about them online. It can be difficult and expensive to sue an individual for defamation, particularly when the individual has taken steps to conceal and/or lie about his or her identity. Generative AI tools make the job of defaming people even simpler and easier.

More concerning than the malicious defamatory liars, however, are the many people who earnestly rely on AI as a research tool. In July, 2023, Mark Walters filed a lawsuit against OpenAI, claiming its ChatGPT tool provided false and defamatory misinformation about him to journalist Fred Riehl. I wrote about this lawsuit in a previous blog post. Shortly after this lawsuit was filed, a defamation lawsuit was filed against Microsoft, alleging that its AI tool, too, had generated defamatory lies about an individual. Generative-AI tools can generate false and defamation statements about individuals even if no one has any intention of defaming anyone or ruining another person’s reputation.

Facilitating false light invasion of privacy

Generative AI is also highly effective in portraying people in a false light. In one recently filed lawsuit, Jack Flora and others allege, among other things, that Prisma Labs’ Lensa app generates sexualized images from images of fully-clothed people, and that the company failed to notify users about the biometric data it collects and how it will be stored and/or destroyed. Flora et al. v. Prisma Labs, Inc., No. 23-cv-00680 (N.D. Calif. February 15, 2023).

Pot, meet kettle; kettle, pot

“False news is harmful to our community, it makes the world less informed, and it erodes trust. . . . At Meta, we’re working to fight the spread of false news.” Meta (nee Facebook) published that statement back in 2017.  Since then, it has engaged in what is arguably the most ambitious campaign in history to monitor and regulate the content of conversations among humans. Yet, it has also joined other mega-organizations Google and Microsoft in investing multiple billions of dollars in what is the greatest boon to fake news in recorded history: generative-AI.

Toward a braver new world

It would be difficult to imagine a more efficient method of facilitating widespread lying and deception (not to mention false and hateful rhetoric) – and therefore propaganda – than generative-AI. Yet, these mega-organizations continue to sink more and more money into further development and deployment of these lie-generators.

I dread what the future holds in store for our children and theirs.

Another AI lawsuit against Microsoft and OpenAI

Last June, Microsoft, OpenAI and others were hit with a class action lawsuit involving their AI data-scraping technologies. On Tuesday (September 5, 2023) another class action lawsuit was filed against them. The gravamen of both of these complaints is that these companies allegedly trained their AI technologies using personal information from millions of users, in violation of federal and state privacy statutes and other laws.

Among the laws alleged to have been violated are the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the California Invasion of Privacy Act, California’s unfair competition law, Illinois’s Biometric Information Privacy Act, and the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act. The lawsuits also allege a variety of common law claims, including negligence, invasion of privacy, conversion, unjust enrichment, breach of the duty to warn, and such.

This is just the most recent lawsuit in a growing body of claims against big AI. Many involve allegations of copyright infringement, but privacy is a growing concern. This particular suit is asking for an award of monetary damages and an order that would require the companies to implement safeguards for the protection of private data.

Microsoft reportedly has invested billions of dollars in OpenAI and its app, ChatGPT.

The case is A.T. v. OpenAI LP, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, No. 3:23-cv-04557 (September 5, 2023).

Is Microsoft “too big to fail” in court? We shall see.

A Recent Exit from Paradise

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.

Id.

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.

Conclusion

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.

Generative-AI: The Top 12 Lawsuits

Artificial intelligence (“AI”) is generating more than content; it is generating lawsuits. Here is a brief chronology of what I believe are the most significant lawsuits that have been filed so far.

Artificial intelligence (“AI”) is generating more than content; it is generating lawsuits. Here is a brief chronology of what I believe are the most significant lawsuits that have been filed so far.

Most of these allege copyright infringement, but some make additional or other kinds of claims, such as trademark, privacy or publicity right violations, defamation, unfair competition, and breach of contract, among others. So far, the suits primarily target the developers and purveyors of generative AI chatbots and similar technology. They focus more on what I call “input” than on “output” copyright infringement. That is to say, they allege that copyright infringement is involved in the way particular AI tools are trained.

Thomson Reuters Enterprise Centre GmbH et al. v. ROSS Intelligence (May, 2020)

Thomson Reuters Enterprise Centre GmbH et al. v. ROSS Intelligence Inc., No. 20-cv-613 (D. Del. 2020)

Thomson Reuters alleges that ROSS Intelligence copied its Westlaw database without permission and used it to train a competing AI-driven legal research platform. In defense, ROSS has asserted that it only copied ideas and facts from the Westlaw database of legal research materials. (Facts and ideas are not protected by copyright.) ROSS also argues that its use of content in the Westlaw database is fair use.

One difference between this case and subsequent generative-AI copyright infringement cases is that the defendant in this case is alleged to have induced a third party with a Westlaw license to obtain allegedly proprietary content for the defendant after the defendant had been denied a license of its own. Other cases involve generative AI technologies that operate by scraping publicly available content.

The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. While those motions were pending, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Andy Warhol Found. for the Visual Arts, Inc. v. Goldsmith, 598 U.S. ___, 143 S. Ct. 1258 (2023). The parties have now filed supplemental briefs asserting competing arguments about whether and how the Court’s treatment of transformative use in that case should be interpreted and applied in this case. A decision on the motions is expected soon.

Doe 1 et al. v. GitHub et al. (November, 2022)

Doe 1 et al. v. GitHub, Inc. et al., No. 22-cv-06823 (N.D. Calif. November 3, 2022)

This is a class action lawsuit against GitHub, Microsoft, and OpenAI that was filed in November, 2022. It involves GitHub’s CoPilot, an AI-powered tool that suggests lines of programming code based on what a programmer has written. The complaint alleges that Copilot copies code from publicly available software repositories without complying with the terms of applicable open-source licenses. The complaint also alleges removal of copyright management information in violation of 17 U.S.C. § 1202, unfair competition, and other tort claims.

Andersen et al. v. Stability AI et al. (January 13, 2023)

Andersen et al. v. Stability AI et al., No. 23-cv-00201 (N.D. Calif. Jan. 13, 2023)

Artists Sarah Andersen, Kelly McKernan, and Karla Ortiz filed this class action lawsuit against generative-AI companies Stability AI, Midjourney, and DeviantArt on January 13, 2023. The lawsuit alleges that the defendants infringed their copyrights by using their artwork without permission to train AI-powered image generators to create allegedly infringing derivative works.  The lawsuit also alleges violations of 17 U.S.C. § 1202 and publicity rights, breach of contract, and unfair competition.

Getty Images v. Stability AI (February 3, 2023)

Getty Images v. Stability AI, No. 23-cv-00135-UNA (D. Del. February 23, 2023)

Getty Images has filed two lawsuits against Stability AI, one in the United Kingdom and one in the United States, each alleging both input and output copyright infringement. Getty Images owns the rights to millions of images. It is in the business of licensing rights to use copies of the images to others. The lawsuit also accuses Stability AI of falsifying, removing or altering copyright management information, trademark infringement, trademark dilution, unfair competition, and deceptive trade practices.

Stability AI has moved to dismiss the complaint filed in the U.S. for lack of jurisdiction.

Flora et al. v. Prisma Labs (February 15, 2023)

Flora et al. v. Prisma Labs, Inc., No. 23-cv-00680 (N.D. Calif. February 15, 2023)

Jack Flora and others filed a class action lawsuit against Prisma Labs for invasion of privacy. The complaint alleges, among other things, that the defendant’s Lensa app generates sexualized images from images of fully-clothed people, and that the company failed to notify users about the biometric data it collects and how it will be stored and/or destroyed, in violation of Illinois’s data privacy laws.

Young v. NeoCortext (April 3, 2023)

Young v. NeoCortext, Inc., 2023-cv-02496 (C.D. Calif. April 3, 2023)

This is a publicity rights case. NeoCortext’s Reface app allows users to paste images of their own faces over those of celebrities in photographs and videos. Kyland Young, a former cast member of the Big Brother reality television show, has sued NeoCortext for allegedly violating his publicity rights. The complaint alleges that NeoCortext has “commercially exploit[ed] his and thousands of other actors, musicians, athletes, celebrities, and other well-known individuals’ names, voices, photographs, or likenesses to sell paid subscriptions to its smartphone application, Refacewithout their permission.”

NeoCortext has asserted a First Amendment defense, among others.

Walters v. Open AI (June 5, 2023)

Walters v. OpenAI, LLC, No. 2023-cv-03122 (N.D. Ga. July 14, 2023) (Complaint originally filed in Gwinnett County, Georgia Superior Court on June 5, 2023; subsequently removed to federal court)

This is a defamation action against OpenAI, the company responsible for ChatGPT. The lawsuit was brought by Mark Walters. He alleges that ChatGPT provided false and defamatory misinformation about him to journalist Fred Riehl in connection with a federal civil rights lawsuit against Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson and members of his staff. ChatGPT allegedly stated that the lawsuit was one for fraud and embezzlement on the part of Mr. Walters. The complaint alleges that Mr. Walters was “neither a plaintiff nor a defendant in the lawsuit,” and “every statement of fact” pertaining to him in the summary of the federal lawsuit that ChatGPT prepared is false. A New York court recently addressed the questions of sanctions for attorneys who submit briefs containing citations to non-existent “precedents” that were entirely made up by ChatGPT. This is the first case to address tort liability for ChatGPT’s notorious creation of “hallucinatory facts.”

In July, 2023, Jeffrey Battle filed a complaint against Microsoft in Maryland alleging that he, too, has been defamed as a result of AI-generated “hallucinatory facts.”

P.M. et al. v. OpenAI et al. (June 28, 2023)

P.M. et al. v. OpenAI LP et al., No. 2023-cv-03199 (N.D. Calif. June 28, 2023)

This lawsuit has been brought by underage individuals against OpenAI and Microsoft. The complaint alleges the defendants’ generative-AI products ChatGPT, Dall-E and Vall-E collect private and personally identifiable information from children without their knowledge or informed consent. The complaint sets out claims for alleged violations of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act; the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act; California’s Invasion of Privacy Act and unfair competition law; Illinois’s Biometric Information Privacy Act, Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act, and Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act; New York General Business Law § 349 (deceptive trade practices); and negligence, invasion of privacy, conversion, unjust enrichment, and breach of duty to warn.

Tremblay v. OpenAI (June 28, 2023)

Tremblay v. OpenAI, Inc., No. 23-cv-03223 (N.D. Calif. June 28, 2023)

Another copyright infringement lawsuit against OpenAI relating to its ChatGPT tool. In this one, authors allege that ChatGPT is trained on the text of books they and other proposed class members authored, and facilitates output copyright infringement. The complaint sets forth claims of copyright infringement, DMCA violations, and unfair competition.

Silverman et al. v. OpenAI (July 7, 2023)

Silverman et al. v. OpenAI, No. 23-cv-03416 (N.D. Calif. July 7, 2023)

Sarah Silverman (comedian/actress/writer) and others allege that OpenAI, by using copyright-protected works without permission to train ChatGPT, committed direct and vicarious copyright infringement, violated section 17 U.S.C. 1202(b), and their rights under unfair competition, negligence, and unjust enrichment law.

Kadrey et al. v. Meta Platforms (July 7, 2023)

Kadrey et al. v. Meta Platforms, No. 2023-cv-03417 (N.D. Calif. July 7, 2023)

The same kinds of allegations as are made in Silverman v. OpenAI, but this time against Meta Platforms, Inc.

J.L. et al. v. Alphabet (July 11, 2023)

J.L. et al. v. Alphabet, Inc. et al. (N.D. Calif. July 11, 2023)

This is a lawsuit against Google and its owner Alphabet, Inc. for allegedly scraping and harvesting private and personal user information, copyright-protected works, and emails, without notice or consent. The complaint alleges claims for invasion of privacy, unfair competition, negligence, copyright infringement, and other causes of action.

On the Regulatory Front

The U.S. Copyright Office is examining the problems associated with registering copyrights in works that rely, in whole or in part, on artificial intelligence. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has suggested that generative-AI implicates “competition concerns.”. Lawmakers in the United States and the European Union are considering legislation to regulate AI in various ways.

Let’s Stop Analogizing Human Creators to Machines

Of course, policy discussions usually begin with the existing framework, but in this instance, it can be a shaky starting place because generative AI presents some unique challenges—and not just for the practice of copyright law.

[Guest post by David Newhoff, author of The Illusion of More and Who Invented Oscar Wilde? The Photograph at the Center of Modern American Copyright.]

Just as it is folly to anthropomorphize computers and robots, it is also unhelpful to discuss the implications of generative AI in copyright law by analogizing machines to authors.[1] In 2019, I explored the idea that “machine learning” could be analogous to human reading if the human happens to have an eidetic memory. But this was a thought exercise, and in that post, I also imagined machine training that serves a computer science or research purpose—not necessarily generative AIs trained on protected works designed to produce works without authors.

In the present discussion, however, certain parties weighing in on AI and copyright seem to advocate policy that is premised on the language and principles of existing doctrine as applicable to the technological processes of both the input and output sides of the generative AI equation. Of course, policy discussions usually begin with the existing framework, but in this instance, it can be a shaky starting place because generative AI presents some unique challenges—and not just for the practice of copyright law.

We should be wary of analogizing machine functions to human activity for the simple reason that copyright law (indeed all law) has never been anything but anthropocentric. Although it is difficult to avoid speaking in terms of machines “learning” or “creating,” it is essential that we either constantly remind ourselves that these are weak, inaccurate metaphors, or that a new glossary is needed to describe what certain AIs may be doing in the world of creative production.

On the input (training) side of the equation, the moment someone says something like, “Humans learn to make art by looking at art, and generative AIs do the same thing,” the speaker should be directed to the break-out session on sci-fi and excused from any serious conversation about applicable copyright law. Likewise, on the output side, comparisons of AI to other technological developments—from the printing press to Photoshop—should be presumed irrelevant unless the AI at issue can plausibly be described as a tool of the author rather than the primary maker of a work of creative expression.

Copyright Office Guidance Highlights Some Key Difficulties

To emphasize the exceptional nature of this discussion, even experts are somewhat confused by both the doctrinal and administrative aspects in the new guidelines published by U.S. Copyright Office directing authors how to disclaim AI-generated material in a registration application. The confusion is hardly surprising because generative AI has prompted the Office to ask an unprecedented question—namely, How was this work made?

As noted in several posts, copyrightability has always been agnostic with regard to the creative process. Copyright rights attach to works that show a modicum of originality, and the Copyright Office does not generally ask what tools, methods, etc. the author used to make a work.[2] But this historic practice was then confronted by the now widely reported applications submitted by Stephen Thaler and Kris Kashtanova, both claiming copyright in visual works made with generative AI.

In both cases, the Copyright Office rejected registration applications for the visual works based on the longstanding, bright-line doctrine that copyright rights can only attach to works made by human beings. In Thaler’s case, the consideration is straightforward because the claimant affirmed that the image was produced entirely by a machine. Kashtanova, on the other hand, asserts more than de minimis authorship (i.e., using AI as a tool) to produce the visual works elements in a comic book.

Whether in response to Kashtanova—or certainly anticipating applications yet to come—the muddiness of the Office guidelines is an attempt to address the difficult question as to whether copyright attaches to a work that combines authorship and AI generation, and how to draw distinctions between the two. This is not only new territory for the Office as a doctrinal matter but is a potential mess as an administrative one.

The Copyright Office has never been tasked with separating the protectable expression attributable to a human from the unprotectable expression attributable to a machine. Even if it could be said that photography has always provoked this tension (a discussion on its own), the analysis has never been an issue for the Office when registering works, but only for the courts in resolving claims of infringement. In fact, Warhol v. Goldsmith, although a fair use case, is a prime example of how tricky it can be to separate the factual elements of a photograph from the expressive elements.

But now the Copyright Office is potentially tasked with a copyrightability question that, in practice, would ask both the author and the examiner to engage in a version of the idea/expression dichotomy analysis—first separating the machine generated material from the author’s material and then considering whether the author has a valid claim in the protectable expression.

This is not so easy to accomplish in a work that combines author and machine-made elements in a manner that may be subtly intertwined; it begs new questions about what the AI “contributed” to a given work; and the inquiry is further complicated by the variety of AI tools in the market or in development. Then, because neither the author/claimant nor the Office examiner is likely a copyright attorney (let alone a court), the inquiry is fraught with difficulty as an administrative process—and that’s if the author makes a good-faith effort to disclaim the AI-generated material in the first place.

Many independent authors are confused enough by the Limit of Claim in a registration application or the concept of “published” versus “unpublished.” Asking these same creators to delve into the metaphysics implied by the AI/Author distinction seems like a dubious enterprise, and one that is not likely to foster more faith in the copyright system than the average indie creator has right now.

Copyrightability Could Remain Blind But …

It is understandable that some creators (e.g., filmmakers using certain plug-ins) may be concerned that the Copyright Office has already taken too broad a view—connoting a per se rule that denies copyrightability for any work generated with any AI technology. This concern is a reminder that AI should not be discussed as a monolithic topic because not all AI enhanced products do the same thing. And again, this may imply a need for some new terms rather than the words we use to describe human activities.

In this light, one could follow a different line of reasoning and argue that the agnosticism of copyrightability vis-à-vis process has always implied a presumption of human authorship where other factors—from technological enhancements to dumb luck—invisibly contribute to the protectable expression. Relatedly, a photographer can add a filter or plug-in that changes the expressive qualities of her image, but doing so is considered part of the selection and arrangement aspect of her authorship and does not dilute the copyrightability of the image.

Some extraordinary visual work has already been produced by professional artists using AI to yield results that are too strikingly well-crafted to believe that the author has not exerted considerable influence over the final image. In this regard, then, perhaps the copyrightability question at the registration stage, no matter how sophisticated the “filter” becomes, should remain blind to process. The Copyright Office could continue to register works submitted by valid claimants without asking the novel How question.

But the more that works may be generated with little or no human spark, the more this agnostic, status-quo approach could unravel the foundation of copyright rights altogether. And it would not be the first time that major tech companies have sought to do exactly that. It is no surprise that an AI developer or a producer using AI would seek the financial benefits of copyright protection; but without a defensible presence of human expression in the work, the exclusive rights of copyright cannot vest in a person with the standing to defend those rights. Nowhere in U.S. law do non-humans have rights of any kind, and this foundational principle reminds us that although machine activity can be compared to human activity as an allegorical construct, this is too whimsical for a serious policy discussion.

Again, I highlight this tangle of administrative and doctrinal factors to emphasize the point that generative AI does not merely present new variations on old questions (e.g., photography), but raises novel questions that cannot easily be answered by analogies to the past. If the challenges presented by generative AI are to be resolved sensibly, and in a way that will serve independent creators, policymakers and thought leaders on copyright law should be skeptical of arguments that too earnestly attempt to transpose centuries of doctrine for human activity into principles applied to machine activity.


[1] I do not distinguish “human” authors, because there is no other kind.

[2] I say “generally” only because I cannot account for every conversation among claimants and examiners.

New AI Copyright Guidance

The Copyright Office is providing guidance to copyright applicants who wish to register works with AI-generated content in them.

On Thursday, March 16, 2023, the United States Copyright Office published new guidance regarding the registration of copyrights in AI-generated material. in the Federal Register. Here is the tl;dr version.

The Problem

Artificial intelligence (AI) technologies are now capable of producing content that would be considered expressive works if created by a human being. These technologies “train” on mass quantities of existing human-authored works and use patterns detected in them to generate like content. This creates a thorny question about authorship: To what extent can a person who uses AI technology to generate content be considered the “author” of such content?

It isn’t a hypothetical problem. The Copyright Office has already started receiving applications for registration of copyrights in works that are either wholly or partially AI-generated.

The U.S. Copyright Act gives the Copyright Office power to determine whether and what kinds of additional information it may need from a copyright registration applicant in order to evaluate the existence, ownership and duration of a purported copyright. On March 16, 2023, the Office exercised that power by publishing Copyright Registration Guidance: Works Containing Material Generated by Artificial Intelligence in the Federal Register. [Copyright Registration Guidance: Works Containing Material Generated by Artificial Intelligence, 88 Fed. Reg. 16190 (March 16, 2023)]

Sorry, HAL, No Registration for You

Consistent with judicial rulings, the U.S. Copyright Office takes the position that only material that is created by a human being is protected by copyright. In other words, copyrights only protect human authorship. If a monkey can’t own a copyright in a photograph and an elephant can’t own a copyright in a portrait it paints, a computer-driven technology cannot own a copyright in the output it generates. Sorry, robots; it’s a human’s world.

As stated in the Compendium of Copyright Office Practices:

The Copyright Office “will not register works produced by a machine or mere mechanical process that operates randomly or automatically without any creative input or intervention from a human author.”

U.S. Copyright Office, Compendium of U.S.
Copyright Office Practices
sec. 313.2 (3d ed. 2021)

Partially AI-Generated Works

A work that is the product of a human being’s own original conception, to which s/he gave visible form clearly has a human author. A work that is entirely the result of mechanical reproduction clearly does not. Things get murkier when AI technology is used to generate content to which a human being applies some creativity.

According to the new guidance, merely prompting an AI technology to generate a poem, drawing or the like, without more, is not enough to establish human authorship if the AI technology determines the expressive elements of its output. This kind of content is not protected by copyright and a registration applicant therefore will need to disclaim it in the application.

On the other hand, if a human being selects and arranges AI-generated content, the selection and arrangement may be protected by copyright even if the content itself is not. Similarly, if a human being makes significant modifications to AI-generated content, then those modifications may receive copyright protection. In all cases, of course, the selection, arrangement or modification must be sufficiently creative in order to qualify for copyright protection.

Disclosure required

The new guidance imposes a duty on copyright registration applicants to disclose the inclusion of AI-generated content in any work submitted for registration.

Standard application

If you use AI technology to any extent in creating the work, you will need to use the Standard application, not the Single application, to register the copyright in it.

Claims and disclaimers

The applicant will need to describe the human author’s contributions to the work in the “Author Created” field of the application. A claim should only be made in this.

Any significant AI-generated content must be explicitly excluded (disclaimed), in the “Limitations of the Claim” section of the application, in the “Other” field, under the “Material Excluded” heading.

Previously filed applications

If you have already filed an application for a work that includes AI-generated material, you will need to make sure that it makes an adequate disclosure about that. The newly-issued guidance says you should contact the Copyright Office’s Public Information Office and report that you omitted AI information from the application. This will cause a notation to the record to be made. When an examiner sees the notation, s/he may contact you to obtain additional information if necessary.

If a registration has already been issued, you should submit a supplemntary registration form to correct it. Failing to do that could result in your registration being cancelled, if the Office becomes aware that information essential to its evaluation of registrability has been omitted. In addition, a court may ignore a registration in an infringement action if it concludes that you knowingly provided the Copyright Office with false information.


Need help with a copyright application or registration?

Contact attorney Tom James.

A Recent Entrance to Complexity

The United States Copyright Office recently reaffirmed its position that it will not register AI-generated content, because it is not created by a human. The rule is easy to state; the devil is in the details. Attorney Thomas James explains.

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.

Conclusion

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.


Need help with a copyright matter? Contact attorney Thomas James.

%d bloggers like this: