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A federal judge has ruled that artwork created solely by artificial intelligence cannot be copyrighted because “human authorship is an essential part of a valid copyright claim.”
The decision, issued by Judge Beryl Howell, stemmed from computer scientist Stephen Thaler’s efforts to copyright an image he said was created by an AI model, identified as Creativity Machine. Thaler claimed that as the owner of Creativity Machine, he was entitled to the copyright. The Copyright Office rejected that application on the grounds that human authorship is necessary to secure a copyright, prompting Thaler to sue.
Howell ultimately upheld the Copyright Office’s decision, citing long-standing precedent about human authorship. “The 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,” Howell wrote. “Non-human actors need no incentivization with the promise of exclusive rights under United States law, and copyright was therefore not designed to reach them.”
In a statement shared with Rolling Stone, Thaller’s lawyer, Ryan Abbott, said, “We disagree with the District Court’s decision. In our view, copyright law is clear that the American public is the beneficiary of the law, and the public benefits when the generation and dissemination of works is encouraged, regardless of how the works are made. We do plan to appeal.”
Howell’s opinion did nod to the drastically shifting landscape of copyright law in the AI era. She even acknowledged Thaller’s own argument about the malleability of copyright law to account for changes in technology. But again, Howell noted that human authorship remained key, distinguishing autonomously created AI works from, say, photographs, which are created by machines.
“Underlying that adaptability, however, has been a consistent understanding that human creativity is the sine qua non at the core of copyrightability, even as that human creativity is channeled through new tools or into new media,” she wrote, adding: “Copyright 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.”
Howell also noted that “we are approaching new frontiers in copyright as artists put AI in their toolbox to be used in the generation of new visual and other artistic works.” This, she continued, will “prompt challenging questions about 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.”
But, Howell stated, Thaller’s case was “not nearly so complex.” That’s because, as it turned out, his case largely boiled down to, not grand questions about technology, art, and copyright, but clerical semantics.
In his original application to the Copyright Office, Thaller asserted the artwork was “created autonomously by machine” and that his copyright claim was based on his “ownership of the machine.” Howell noted that Thaller later tried to imply “he played a controlling role in generating the work” by arguing he “provided instructions and directed his AI to create the work” and that the AI “only operates at [his] direction.”
While such arguments could’ve potentially led to a more nuanced case and decision, Thaller pointed out that “these statements directly contradict the administrative record” — meaning, Thaller’s own copyright application. Furthermore, Howell noted, Thaller “never attempt to correct” his application to claim a copyright on these grounds.