Does Machine Learning Violate Human Copyright?

On October 30, 2023, a judge in the Northern District of California ruled in one of the first lawsuits between artists and generative AI art platforms for copyright infringement. While the judge quickly dismissed some of the Plaintiffs’ claims, the case is still very much alive as he is allowing them to address some of the problems in their case and file amended complaints. 

So what’s it all about? Three artists are suing Stability AI Ltd. and Stability AI, Inc. (collectively, “Stability”), whose platform, Stable Diffusion, generates photorealistic images from text input. To teach Stable Diffusion how to generate images, Stability’s programmers scrape (i.e., take or steal, depending on how charitable you’re feeling) the Internet for billions of existing copyrighted images — among them, allegedly, images created by the Plaintiffs. End users (i.e., people like you and me) can then use Stability’s platform to create images in the style of the artists whose work the AI has been trained.

In addition to Stability, the proposed class action suit on behalf of other artists also names as defendants Midjourney, another art generation AI that incorporates Stable Diffusion, and DeviantArt, Inc., an online community for digital artists, which Stability scraped to train Stable Diffusion, and which also offers a platform called DreamUp that is built on Stable Diffusion. 

The Plaintiffs — Sarah Andersen, Kelly McKernan, and Karla Ortiz — allege, among other things, that Defendants infringed on their copyrights, violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and engaged in unfair competition. 

In ruling on Defendants’ motion to dismiss, U.S. District Judge William Orrick quickly dismissed the copyright claims brought by McKernan and Ortiz against Stability because they hadn’t registered copyrights in their artworks — oops. 

Anderson, however, had registered copyrights. Nonetheless, Stability argued her claim of copyright infringement should be dismissed because she couldn’t point to specific works that Stability used as training images. The Court rejected that argument. It concluded that the fact she could show that some of her registered works were used for training Stable Diffusion was enough at this stage to allege a violation of the copyright act. 

The judge, however, dismissed Anderson’s direct infringement claim against DeviantArt and Midjourney. With DeviantArt, he found that Plaintiffs hadn’t alleged that DeviantArt had any affirmative role in copying Anderson’s images. For Midjourney, the judge found that Plaintiffs needed to clarify whether the direct infringement claim was based on Midjourney’s use of Stable Diffusion and/or whether Midjourney independently scraped images from the web and used them to train its product. Judge Orrick is allowing them to amend their complaint to do so. 

Because Orrick dismissed the direct infringement claims against DeviantArt and Midjourney, he also dismissed the claims for vicarious infringement against them. (By way of background, vicarious infringement is where a defendant has the “right and ability” to supervise infringing conduct and has a financial interest in that conduct.) Again, however, the Court allowed Plaintiffs to amend their complaint to state claims for direct infringement against DeviantArt and Midjourney, and also to amend their complaint to allege vicarious infringement against Stability for the use of Stable Diffusion by third parties. 

Orrick warned the Plaintiffs (and their lawyers) that he would “not be as generous with leave to amend on the next, expected rounds of motions to dismiss and I will expect a greater level of specificity as to each claim alleged and the conduct of each defendant to support each claim.” 

Plaintiffs also alleged that Defendants violated their right of publicity, claiming that Defendants used their names to promote their AI products. However, the Court dismissed these claims because the complaint didn’t actually allege that the Defendants advertised their products using Plaintiffs’ names. Again, he allowed the Plaintiffs leave to amend. (The Plaintiffs originally tried to base a right of publicity claim on the fact that Defendants’ platforms allowed users to produce AI-generated works “in the style of” their artistic identities. An interesting idea, but Plaintiffs abandoned it.) 

In addition, DeviantArt moved to dismiss Plaintiffs’ right of publicity claim on grounds that DeviantArt’s AI platform generated expressive content. Therefore, according to DeviantArt, the Court needed to balance the Plaintiff’s rights of publicity against DeviantArt’s interest in free expression by considering whether the output was transformative. (Under California law, “transformative use” is a defense to a right of publicity claim.) The Court found that this was an issue that couldn’t be decided on a motion to dismiss and would have to wait. 

What are the key takeaways here? For starters, it is fair to say that the judge thought that Plaintiffs’ complaint was not a paragon of clarity. It also seems like the judge thought that Plaintiffs would have a hard time alleging that images created by AI platforms in response to user text input were infringing. However, he seemed to indicate that it was more likely to allow copyright infringement claims based on Stability’s use of images to train Stable Diffusion to proceed.