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?