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Authors Guild Sues OpenAI For Copyright Infringement

BY Andrew Rossow

September 20, 2023

OpenAI faces yet another major legal action after The Authors Guild alleged that the AI startup violated U.S. copyright law as it continues to train its artificial intelligence (AI) models. 

The class-action lawsuit, initially filed on September 19, alleged that OpenAI’s AI algorithms serve as “the heart of [OpenAI’s] massive commercial enterprise…[a]nd at the heart of these algorithms is systematic theft on a mass scale.”

Since 1912, The Authors Guild has been advocating for the rights of writers by supporting free speech, fair contracts, and copyrights. 

In the legal documents, The Authors Guild claims that OpenAI has violated the Copyright Act by conducting what it describes as “flagrant and harmful infringement” of registered copyrights related to written works of fiction. 

The registered copyrights at issue are the late Mignon Eberhart’s works, including While the Patient Slept and The Patient in Room 18. Eberhart has been dubbed “America’s Agatha Christie,” and authored dozens of mystery novels over nearly sixty years that were eventually adapted for film – The White Cockatoo, The Patient in Room 18, Hasty Wedding, Mystery House, and While the Patient Slept.

According to the Guild’s most recent authors earnings study, median writing-related income for full-time authors make just over $20,000, where full-time traditional authors earn only about $10,000 of that from their published books. It’s no secret that writers are facing extreme financial hardship from copywriting, journalism, and online writing. 

One Guild member who writes marketing and web content reported losing 75 percent of their work as a result of their clients switching to AI. 

The organization argues that OpenAI specifically copied some of these works extensively, without proper permission or compensation, by incorporating them into large language models (LLMs). 

Specifically, the Guild emphasizes the crucial role that these algorithms play in OpenAI’s commercial activities, suggesting that the heart of these AI systems is systematic copyright infringement on a massive scale. It further suggested that OpenAI could have simply trained its AI models by using the public domain or by paying licensing fees for the use of these copyrighted materials.

“When prompted, ChatGPT generated an accurate summary of the final chapter of While the Patient Slept…ChatGPT could not have generated the material described above if OpenAI’s LLMs had not ingested and been ‘trained’ on the Authors Guild Infringed Works.”

Calling on Big Tech

In June, The Authors Guild wrote an open letter calling on OpenAI and other big tech firms to fairly license authors’ work for use in LLM training, pointing to the risks of generative AI tools like ChatGPT and GPT-N.

“As a result of embedding our writings in your systems, generative AI threatens to damage our profession by flooding the market with mediocre, machine-written books, stories, and journalism based on our work. The introduction of generative AI threatens…to make it even more difficult, if not impossible, for writers – especially young writers and voices from under-represented communities – to earn a living from their profession,” the Complaint read in part. 

To date, that open letter has been signed by almost 12,000 authors, including many of the plaintiffs to the current class-action lawsuit.

On September 11, The Authors Guild pinned an article containing tips for authors seeking to protect their works from AI use.

It also highlights the steps it has taken to raise awareness about protecting authors’ work from AI web crawlers, such as those used by OpenAI. 

This lawsuit against OpenAI follows a similar legal action involving Meta (formerly Facebook) and OpenAI. In that case, initiated in July, author Sarah Silverman and others alleged copyright infringement related to AI models using copyrighted material for training. Both Meta and OpenAI have since requested that the claims be dismissed.

The legal dispute occurs in the context of growing concern over the use of AI in content creation and its implications for copyright protection.

While the U.S. continues to stagnate on pushing any foundational AI framework forward, other countries, including the EU are in their final stages of their AI guidelines being made into law. 

This week, the UK’s regulatory watchdog, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), issues its initial set of AI guiding principles that are aimed at ensuring the responsible development and use of foundation models (FMs) with AI. It specifically identified big tech, including OpenAI, Apple, Google, and Microsoft and the antitrust concerns. The next update on the CMA’s progress is expected to be published in early 2024.

In mid-August, a U.S. federal court upheld a previous decision from the U.S. Copyright Office (USCO) that denied copyright protection for any submitted generative AI work in the United States. The work in question was an AI-generated work called “A Recent Entrance to Paradise,” which was the output from Dr. Stephen Thaler’s AI system, “Creativity Machine.”

Unfortunately, the biggest concern for the USCO right now is that its current enforcement mechanism is based on an “honor system” for disclosing whether a work was generated by an AI software or a similarly related algorithm. 

Editor’s note: This article was written by an nft now staff member in collaboration with OpenAI’s GPT-3.5.

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