23 August, 2023

Humans Only - US Federal Court Rules that AI Cannot Own Copyright in Created Works

This blog has on many occasions discussed the difficult world that IP can be for both AI creations and inventions (e.g. more here, here and here), with the landscape looking more and more 'hostile' towards AI creations and inventorship. This hasn't, however, put a damper on many who will keep trying to push the envelope, and test the limits of IP laws across the world. Such an individual is the prolific inventor, Stephen Thaler, who has been on a crusade to enable AI to own many IP rights, having failed on many occasions along the way. His saga has since continued, with the US Federal Court being the next court to consider AI authorship this month.

The case of Stephen Thaler v Shira Perlmutter, Register of Copyrights an Director of the US Copyright Office concerned a system called "Creativity Machine", which Mr Thaler owns. Creativity Machine has, according to Mr Thaler, generated a piece of visual art of its own accord, which he then sought to register on the system's behalf. This application was rejected by the US Copyright Office for a lack of human authorship (see link above). Mr Thaler did not accept this outcome and appealed the decision, which landed on the desk of Judge Howell. 

Both parties sought summary judgment on the matter, for which Judge Howell handed down their judgment. At its core the matter concerned "whether a work generated entirely by an artificial system absent human involvement should be eligible for copyright".

Judge Howell first noted that, pursuant to the US Copyright Act 1976, copyright protection attaches immediately upon the creation of “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression", provided those works meet certain requirements. 

The judge also noted that "copyright law has proven malleable enough to cover works created with or involving technologies developed long after traditional media of writings memorialized on paper", which gives the Act scope to broadly adapt to changing technologies and methods of creation. 

However, despite this adaptability, at its core copyright still requires human creativity, even if that creativity is "channeled through new tools or into new media". The judge determined that "[h]uman involvement in, and ultimate creative control over, the work at issue was key to the conclusion that the new type of work fell within the bounds of copyright" (referring to the decision in Burrow-Giles Lithographic Co. v Sarony). 

To really drive the point home, Judge Howell states that "[c]opyright has never stretched so far, however, as to protect works generated by new forms of technology operating absent any guiding human hand, as plaintiff urges here. Human authorship is a bedrock requirement of copyright". The important point here is that the decision requires that a human guides the creation of a work by AI systems, so an absence of human intervention can lead to the works falling outside of copyright protection. 

As has been mentioned in earlier decisions, this position is corroborated by the text in the Act itself, which notes that copyright attaches to "original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device". The fixation of the work must also be done "by or under the authority of the author"

While the term 'author' is not defined in the Act, the judge quickly decided that the Act requires a copyrightable work to have an originator with the capacity for intellectual, creative, or artistic labour who specifically is a human. Additionally, "[t]he act of human creation—and how to best encourage human individuals to engage in that creation, and thereby promote science and the useful arts—was thus central to American copyright from its very inception".

The requirement for human authorship has also been followed and kept as copyright laws have evolved, with the Supreme Court consistently ruling that it is a crucial requirement for copyright protection (e.g. in Sarony above, Mazer v Stein and Goldstein v California). 

The courts have also consistently rejected copyright ownership by non-human authors. This has included divine beings (Urantia Found. v Kristen Maaherra), gardens (Kelley v Chicago Park District) and monkeys (Naruto v Slater). 

Judge Howell nevertheless acknowledges that in the future the courts and/or legislatures will have to grapple with "how much human input is necessary to qualify the user of an AI  system as an “author” of a generated work, the scope of the protection obtained over the resultant image, how to assess the originality of AI-generated works where the systems may have been trained on unknown pre-existing works, how copyright might best be used to incentivize creative works involving AI, and more". 

Judge Howell concluded that the US Copyright Office acted properly in denying copyright registration for a work created absent any human involvement. 

The decision is one in a long string which have denied AI authorship and inventorship, and it looks unlikely that this will change bar legislative amendments to existing copyright regimes. The current, admittedly nearly archaic legislative frameworks have not, and frankly could not have, conceived of a world where computers or AI systems could create as they do currently. This leaves legislative action as imperative, lest we want the law to forever lag behind technology. 

09 August, 2023

A Can of Copyright - US Supreme Court Rules on Fair Use in Andy Warhol's Work

From the iconic lithographic cans of Campbell's soup to the Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol's art is iconic and one that most (if not everyone) recognises. However, with success and notoriety comes potential legal battles, particularly if artists "take inspiration" from works of other artists. In the US the doctrine of fair use is very broad and can encompass several acts, but it's remit in relation to more direct copying as 'inspiration' has been hazy. A recent, and rare foray into the realm of the US Supreme Court was set to make matters clearer, and the awaited decision was indeed handed down earlier this Summer. 

The case of Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts Inc. v Lynn Goldsmith concerned the aforementioned iconic art of Andy Warhol, namely his lithographs of the music artist Prince. The lithographs used a picture taken by a famous photographer in her own right, Ms Goldsmith, in 1984 for Vanity Fair magazine as an "artist reference". Ms Goldsmith had licenced the picture to Vanity Fair with the strict condition that it only be used once in the magazine. Mr Warhol created 15 lithographs of Prince in total, and later his Foundation licenced one of those works to Conde Nast for a story about Prince. Ms Goldsmith subsequently informed the Foundation that they had infringed her copyright in her picture, which then lead to the Foundation suing Ms Goldmith asserting fair use. The lower courts have reached differing outcomes on the matter, which lead to the case ending up in the Supreme Court for final decision.  

The Foundation did not challenge the conclusion made by the Court of Appeal that the lithograph and the series of works created by Warhol are substantially similar. This left the question of whether Mr Warhol's use of the photograph was 'fair use'. In addition, the only factor within the assessment of fair use remained the first factor, i.e. whether "the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes" weighs in Ms Goldsmith's favor or if the work would be considered 'transformative'.

The first factor specifically looks at whether, as has been firmly established in Campbell v Acuff-Rose Music Inc: "an allegedly infringing use has a further purpose or different character, which is a matter of degree, and the degree of difference must be weighed against other considerations like commercialism". This means that even though the expression may be new (as the Foundation argued), it, by itself, is not enough to deal with the first factor. 

Justice Sotomayor, handing down the majority's decision, focussed on the meaning of the first factor at issue. She noted that it "considers the reasons for, and nature of, the copier’s use of an original work", and specifically asks "whether the new work merely ‘supersede[s] the objects’ of the original creation… (‘supplanting’ the original), or instead adds something new, with a further purpose or different character". In other words, does the new work 'substitute' the other work, or is its purpose the same or highly similar to that of the original work. 

The preamble to section 107 of the US Copyright Act does give helpful guidance on what may be included in this factor, which includes, but is not limited to: "criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching… scholarship, or research". The similarly will be a degree of similarity, rather than a clear cut similarly assessment, so the Court will not restrict itself to just these categories. 

If a use has a further purpose or different character it is deemed to be 'transformative', which is, yet again, a matter of degree. However, there is a minimum threshold for transformative use, specifically that the "degree of transformation required to make “transformative” use of an original must go beyond that required to qualify as a derivative"

To summarize a very lengthy and detailed discussion of the minutiae of the definition of the first factor, Justice Sotomayor summarized it as: "the first fair use factor considers whether the use of a copyrighted work has a further purpose or different character, which is a matter of degree, and the degree of difference must be balanced against the commercial nature of the use. If an original work and a secondary use share the same or highly similar purposes, and the secondary use is of a commercial nature, the first factor is likely to weigh against fair use, absent some other justification for copying".

Justice Sotomayor then moved on to considering whether the particular 'use' of the protected works would be an 'infringement'. 

Ms Goldsmith's pictures were used in a variety of ways: (i) to create the Vanity Fair illustration and the other Prince Series works; (ii) Vanity Fair then used the photograph when it published Warhol’s illustration in 1984; and (iii) the Foundation used the photograph when it licensed an image of Warhol’s Orange Prince to Condé Nast in 2016. However, only the latter 2016 use has been argued to be infringing. 

Typically photographs, such as Ms Goldsmith's, are used accompanying articles relating to the given celebrity or subject. As such, the use by Condé Nast and the Foundation in 2016 was substantially the same. The use was also clearly of commercial nature, as the images were licenced from the Foundation, weighing against a finding of fair use. Taken together these factors weigh against fair use absent some other justification for copying, i.e. any transformative nature of Mr Warhol's work.

Justice Sotomayor then moved on to considering whether Mr Warhol's work was transformative. As described in the Campbell decision, as mentioned above, transformative use is one that "alter[s] the first [work] with new expression, meaning, or message". Agreeing with the Court of Appeals, Justice Sotomayor noted that "any secondary work that adds a new aesthetic or new expression to its source material is necessarily transformative", however, the courts should not attempt to evaluate the artistic significance of a particular work. 

The key, in the Court's view, is what the purpose of the new, potentially transformative work, really is and if the use is distinct from the original. In this case, the licensing of the lithographic image by Condé Nast is similar to the use of the original work, namely as illustrating a magazine about Prince (although acknowledging difference between them). 

Justice Sotomayor noted that "[t]o hold otherwise would potentially authorize a range of commercial copying of photographs, to be used for purposes that are substantially the same as those of the originals"

Despite arguments made by the Foundation, the Court rejected their argument that the Warhol lithographic was commentary on the dehumanizing nature and effects of celebrity. According to Justice Sotomayor, the commentary could not stand on its own two feet, and the commercial use of it required compelling reasons to see otherwise.  

Ultimately, the Court held against the Foundation, determining that "Goldsmith’s original photograph of Prince, and AWF’s copying use of that photograph in an image licensed to a special edition magazine devoted to Prince, share substantially the same purpose, and the use is of a commercial nature[, and]  AWF has offered no other persuasive justification for its unauthorized use of the photograph". This means that the first factor would weigh in favor of Ms Goldsmith. 

The scathing dissent by Justice Kagan highlights the contentious nature of this decision, and its potential impact on both copyright holders and artists trying to take inspiration of other works. The decision does limit the scope of artistic inspiration in the world of fair use, and potentially may have a cooling effect on art creation (though this remains to be seen). It does, however, add further weight to the copyrights held by individuals and entities, which they will undoubtedly receive with open arms. As said, the impact of the decision will be interesting to see and whether more derivative, or 'inspired' works will be litigated in the future.