Big Name Authors Battle the Bots

This year has brought us some of the early rounds of the fights between creators and AI companies, notably Microsoft, Meta, and OpenAI (the company behind ChatGPT). In addition to the Hollywood strikes, we’ve also seen several lawsuits between copyright owners and companies developing AI products. The claims largely focus on the AI companies’ creation of “large language models” or “LLMs.” (By way of background, LLMs are algorithms that take a large amount of information and use it to detect patterns so that it can create its own “original” content in response to user prompts.) 

Among these cases is one filed by the Authors Guild and several prominent writers (including Jonathan Franzen and Jodi Picoult) in the Southern District of New York. It alleges OpenAI ingested large databases of copyrighted materials, including the plaintiffs’ works, to train their algorithms. In early December, the plaintiffs amended their complaint to add Microsoft as a defendant alleging that Microsoft knew about and assisted OpenAI in its infringement of the plaintiffs’ copyrights.

Because it is the end of the year, here are five “things to look for in 2024” in this case (and others like it): 

  1. What will defendants argue on fair use and how will the Supreme Court’s 2023 decision in Goldsmith impact this argument? (In 2023 the SCOTUS ruled that Andy Warhol’s manipulation of a photograph by Lynn Goldsmith was not transformative enough to qualify as fair use.)
  2. Does the fact that the output of platforms like ChatGPT isn’t copyrightable have any impact on the fair use analysis? The whole idea behind fair use is to encourage subsequent creators to build on the work of earlier creators, but what happens to this analysis when the later “creator” is merely a computer doing what it was programmed to do? 
  3. Will the fact that OpenAI recently inked a deal with Axel Springer (publisher of Politico and Business Insider) to allow OpenAI to summarize its news articles as well as use its content as training data for OpenAI’s large language models affect OpenAI’s fair use argument?
  4. What impact, if any, will this and other similar cases have on the business model for AI? Big companies and venture capital firms have invested heavily in AI, but if courts rule they must pay authors and other creators for their copyrighted works it dramatically changes the profitability of this model. Naturally, tech companies are putting forth numerous arguments against payment, including how little each individual creator would get considering how large the total pool of creators is, how it would curb innovation, etc. (One I find compelling is the idea that training a machine on copyrighted text is no different from a human reading a bunch of books and then using the knowledge and sense of style gained to go out and write one of their own.)
  5. Is Microsoft, which sells (copyrighted) software, ok with a competitor training its platform on copyrighted materials? I’m guessing that’s probably not ok.

These are all big questions with a lot at stake. For good and for ill, we live in exciting times, and in the arena of copyright and IP law I guarantee that 2024 will be an exciting year. See you then!