December 4, 2023
In August 2023, the U.S. District Court of Columbia held that AI systems cannot hold copyright for their own work.
The plaintiff, Stephen Thaler, attempted to copyright an AI-generated image “as a work-for-hire to the owner of the Creativity Machine”. This would effectively list the computer system as the author and Thaler as the owner of the work, titled “A Recent Entrance to Paradise”. After the U.S. Copyright Office’s final rejection, Thaler sued the Office, claiming its denial was “arbitrary, capricious […] and not in accordance with the law”. The District Court did not agree.
Despite the work being created entirely without human involvement, Judge Beryl A. Howell found that the U.S. Copyright Office correctly denied it copyright protection. She echoed the Office’s ruling, holding that human authorship is a “bedrock requirement of copyright”. The decision noted that copyright has never been granted to works that “operat[e] absent any guiding human hand”. The subsequent question of whether Thaler could transfer the copyright from the Creativity Machine to himself was therefore moot.
The decision is in line with the Courts’ longstanding denial to recognize copyright in works created by non-humans. While the ruling does not change the status quo, it acknowledges that “we are approaching new frontiers in copyright”, where artists increasingly employ non-humans as a creative tool. Advancements in AI will continue to pose challenging legal questions. In particular, Judge Howell asks how much human input is required to qualify the user of an algorithm as an “author”; what scope of protection should be provided to AI-generated works; and how might copyright be best used to incentivize creative works involving AI.
One thing is certain: the court cases are piling up, as noted by The Verge. To name but a few, visual artists Sarah Andersen, Kelly McKernan, and Karla Ortiz have reportedly filed a class action complaint in the U.S. District Court of California against Stability AI Ltd. and Stability AI, Inc., Midjourney, Inc., and DeviantArt, Inc. In early February, Getty Images also reportedly filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court of Delaware against Stability AI.
As AI systems become more autonomous, these unanswered questions will become even more pressing.
Authors: Emily Groper and Kasia Donovan