15 March, 2022

Yet Another Rejection - US Copyright Office Rejects Registration of Copyright in AI Created Artwork

How works created by artificial intelligence, or AI, are treated by various jurisdictions has been a hot topic recently, including in this very blog (for example here and here). It seems that, despite a briefly celebrated win in Australia, the technology is seeing setback after setback on whether AI-created works will be covered by IP and this seems more unlikely every day. The US Copyright Office was the latest blow in the battle for IP protection of AI-created works, which leaves the technology in a bit of a bind, however, it featured a familiar individual yet again. 

The US Copyright Office's Review Board recently released a decision on the copyright protection of a work, A Recent Entrance to Paradise, created by an AI program called Creativity Machine, developed by Steven Thaler. While the Creativity Machine was the author of the work, Mr Thaler was listed as the claimant alongside it as its owner. The work was autonomously created by the Creativity Machine, but Mr Thaler wanted to register the work as a work-for-hire to the owner of the program, himself. 

The US Copyright Office initially rejected the registration of the copyright in the work in 2019 as it "lacks the human authorship necessary to support a copyright claim", which Mr Thaler subsequently appealed this decision arguing that the "human authorship requirement is unconstitutional and unsupported by either statute or case law". Despite this, the Copyright Office rejected the registration on the same basis as before and noted that Mr Thaler had not provided any evidence of sufficient creative input or intervention by a human author in the work and that the Copyright Office won't abandon its longstanding interpretation of this matter which is based on precedent from the courts, including the Supreme Court. 

Being ever-persistent, Mr Thaler then yet again appealed, arguing in a familiar fashion that the Office’s human authorship requirement is unconstitutional and unsupported by case law. Mr Thaler also argued that there is a public policy piece to this where the Copyright Office 'should' register copyright in machine-created works because doing so would "further the underlying goals of copyright law, including the constitutional rationale for copyright protection". Mr Thaler also again rejected the Copyright Office's assertions of supporting case law. 

At the beginning of its decision, the Review Board accepted that the works were indeed created by AI without any creative contribution from a human actor. However, the Board noted that copyright only protects "the fruits of intellectual labor that are founded in the creative powers of the [human] mind". Mr Thaler was therefore tasked with either proving that the work was created by a human, which it hadn't been, or somehow convincing the Board to depart from long-established precedent.

The Review Board then moved on to discussing the precedent relevant to the matter at hand. 

Paragraph 306 of the US Copyright Compendium sets out that "the Office will refuse to register a claim if it determines that a human being did not create the work".  As such, human authorship is a prerequisite to copyright protection in the US. 

Similarly, 17 USC 102(a) affords copyright protection to "original works of authorship", and, while the phrase is very broad in its definition, it still requires human authorship. This has been supported by US Supreme Court decisions in Burrow-Giles Lithographic Co. v Sarony and Mazer v Stein where the Supreme Court required human authorship for copyright protection. In addition to the highest court in the US, the lower courts have also followed these decisions. 

Although the courts haven't directly decided on AI authorship in relation to copyright just yet, Mr Thaler has featured in a recent decision in the case of Thaler v Hirshfeld (the very same individual as in this decision) where the court decided that, under the Patent Act, an ‘inventor’ must be a natural person and cannot be an AI. 

The Board also discussed a recent report by the USPTO who discussed IP issues around AI. In this report, the USPTO noted that "existing law does not permit a non-human to be an author [and] this should remain the law"

The Board also briefly touched on Mr Thaler's secondary argument, which was that AI can be an author under the law because the work-made-for-hire doctrine allows for non-human, artificial persons such as companies to be authors. The Board rejected this argument since the work was not made for hire. This was due to the requirement for such a work to be prepared by e.g. an employee or one or more parties who agree that the work is one for hire. No such agreement was in place between Mr Thaler and the Creativity Machine. Even outside of this, the doctrine merely addresses ownership and not copright protection, so human authorship is, yet again, required. 

The Board, therefore, rejected the appeal and refused to register the work. 

The decision by the Board is by no means surprising, as the status of AI-created works seems to be more and more established as the years go by as a no-go. While copyright protection could be possible in some jurisdictions, as discussed in the above blog articles in more detail, it seems highly unlikely to be possible in the US without legislative intervention. As AI develops the law will have to address this and potentially grant AI-creation some level of protection, however, this will take some time to come true.