13 April, 2023

Keeping Their AI on the Ball - US Copyright Office Issues Guidance on the Copyright Protection of AI Generated Works

At this point there probably is no one on Earth that has not heard of, or even tested, various AI content generation systems, including ChatGPT, Google Bard and Midjourney. The tools are already impressive and are only slated to get better, so many legislatures and national bodies are (finally!) getting to grips with AI, its implications, and legal issues around the technology. One such aspect is whether AI generated works can, or will be protected by copyright, as the area remains firmly hazy as the law stands, including in the common law. One of the first off the blocks is the US Copyright Office which recently released guidance on the protection of AI generated works. 

The guidance, titled "Copyright Registration Guidance: Works Containing Material Generated by Artificial Intelligence" is brief and to the point, covering most of the issues to give better light on copyright protection on these emerging works.

The guidance initially starts with the basics, noting that for works to be protected by copyright they must have human authorship. The main decision in this regard is Burrow-Giles Lithographic Co. v Sarony where the US Supreme Court confirmed that  an author is “he to whom anything owes its origin; originator; maker; one who completes a work of science or literature”, which specifically can only be a human author. Subsequent decisions have confirmed the position to be the same, with precedent being clearly set in stone since 1886.

The same requirement is extended to the registration of copyright protected works by the Copyright Office, with its Compendium noting this position clearly. Any works created by AI systems are treated as the result of “mechanical reproduction” instead of an author’s “own original mental conception, to which [the author] gave visible form”, so the authorship of AI generated works will depend on the circumstances, e.g., how the AI tool operates and how it was used to create the final work. 

The Copyright Office notes that this includes simply giving the AI system a prompt and it then produces a new work, which is how most of the systems operate currently, as then the "'traditional elements of authorship' are determined and executed by the technology". What users would have to do is exercise ultimate creative control how such systems interpret any given prompts and then generate the material for them to have human authorship. 

Human authorship is possible, however, if a user "select[s] or arrange[s] AI-generated material in a sufficiently creative way that “the resulting work as a whole constitutes an original work of authorship", or if an artist modifies the works created by the AI systems to meet authorship requirements. 

The guidance is a clear sign that legislation is behind the times and legal requirements for authorship would need to be updated to reflect the new paradigm of AI generation of works and their protection in some form. The protection would still have to balance the remuneration of artists whose works are used in the training data and/or source of any derivative works, while encouraging the development of these AI systems and to remunerate them accordingly. This will be a difficult balance to strike, especially since legislatures across the world are woefully behind the development of these technologies.