Copy That AI!

So, AI is coming for your job. What do we do about that?

Let’s say you’re an artist. You love your work, you trained for years to do it well, and it’s been paying your rent a while now. Then AI models came along that do your job better than you ever could. Currently you are still employed, because nobody really realizes what’s happening yet, but you can see the writing on the wall.

Maybe you feel like this person, who technically still has a job, but that job has been reduced to the care and feeding of a machine that rapidly produces better art than they could. As that technology improves, the parts of the job that still require human intervention will be pushed closer and closer to the margins. What is that artist supposed to do?

Placard announcing rewards for snitching on Luddites, dated 1808

Just a quick historical aside: People rag on the Luddites, but don’t really understand what happened. For five years, an organized group of textile workers targeted industrial equipment in England–equipment which was making their labor obsolete. The destruction of property was used as a tool to obtain leverage over the employers, but the practice ended when their government sent in the military and started executing people who broke machines.

While people use the Luddites as an example of ignorant resistance to progress, I view them more sympathetically. I see them as rational actors, doing the best they could with the limited means available to them. What’s more, I see our future in their past. I think it’s easy to look down on the Luddites when you still have your job, but given the pace of technology, there soon will be little labor left for human hands to do.

So let’s say you’re a newly redundant artist, looking for some direct action to take. It’s tough to go full Luddite, when the AI model you want to break can only be accessed through the internet. But the Luddites’ methods, of targeting the economic interests of the people using these machines, are still potent.

The law in the U.S. is currently clear: Nobody can own the copyright on AI-generated art. That may change as nations get their act in gear and start passing laws, but legislation is likely years away. There’s an AI-shaped hole in the laws that protect intellectual property. I have even seen some (questionably sourced) recent news that suggests video game companies are recognizing this and choosing not to use AI art.

That means:

  • Character designs that are generated by AI are not protected
  • Music generated by AI is not protected
  • Art generated by AI is not protected
Angry artist holding a paintbrush, original artwork by a human (me), 2023, actually copyrightable!

And when something isn’t protected by intellectual property law, you can copy it. Not only can you copy it, but you can create derivative works of it. You can sell it yourself. And the company that made it can’t sue you for copyright infringement, because they don’t actually own it! That’s just free-market capitalism, baby!

So this is the message that artists can send to companies: If you want to own intellectual property in the stuff you make and sell, you had better be hiring real human artists to do it. Because if you don’t, there is a legion of unemployed graphic designers who are motivated to drag it through the mud with no repercussions.

Now, let’s be clear about the limits here. This is U.S. law–I have no idea what’s going on in other countries. Also, we’re talking about things that were originally created by AI. You can copy the image at the end of this post and I couldn’t stop you, but you wouldn’t be able to copy my doodle above, even if AI were used to make some later version of it. You also can’t copy the parts of a work that a human did create. So for example, you could copy the AI-generated art in a comic book, but you still couldn’t copy the comic as whole, since a human likely created the text and the arrangement of the book.

Image by Midjourney, prompt “a terrified robot, looking over its shoulder while working on a loom in a dimly lit room. The Luddites are coming for it”

Of course, I am not your lawyer, and the above is not legal advice. We’re just a bunch of internet friends having an academic discussion of the state of the law. And of course, the legal and technological landscapes are changing fast, so what is true today might not be true tomorrow. So if you end up on the business end of a lawsuit after copying something that is copyrightable, don’t come crying to me!

I’m just saying, that’s a beautiful [AI-generated art] you’ve got there. Sure would be a shame if something… happened to it.

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