Famous writers sue OpenAI for alleged copyright infringement, missing the point again

Last week, a group of prominent writers sued OpenAI, in what is just the latest in a growing number of lawsuits claiming that AI systems are infringing on their copyrights. The New York Times reports:

More than a dozen authors filed a lawsuit against OpenAI on Tuesday, accusing the company, which has been backed with billions of dollars in investment from Microsoft, of infringing on their copyrights by using their books to train its popular ChatGPT chatbot. The complaint, which was filed along with the Authors Guild, said that OpenAI’s chatbots can now produce “derivative works” that can mimic and summarize the authors’ books, potentially harming the market for authors’ work, and that the writers were neither compensated nor notified by the company.

There’s an interesting comment from Douglas Preston, one of the authors who has joined the lawsuit, who said:

he was shocked when he asked ChatGPT to describe minor characters in his books and it spat back detailed information that wasn’t available in reviews or Wikipedia entries for the novels.

“That’s when I looked at this and said, ‘My God, ChatGPT has read my books, how many of my books has it read?’” he said. “It knew everything, and that’s when I got a bad feeling.”

It’s hard to see why he was “shocked”. That ChatGPT used his books as training material is rather complimentary – it means they were considered worth using for the purposes of machine learning. Presumably Preston would be flattered if readers knew his books so well that they could describe in detail minor characters. What really matters is how people use ChatGPT and similar generative AI systems that are powered by the statistical data they extract from parsing texts and other material. A recent open letter from artists using generative AI, published on the Creative Commons site, focuses on this aspect:

this diverse, pioneering work of individual human artists is being misrepresented. Some say it is about merely typing in prompts or regurgitating existing works. Others deride our methods and our art as based on ‘stealing’ and ‘data theft.’ While generative AI can be used to exploitatively replicate existing works, such uses do not interest us. Our art is grounded in ingenuity and creating new art. It is well known that all artists build not only on the previous ideas, genres, and concepts that came before, but also on the culture in which they create. Unfortunately, many individual artists are afraid of backlash if they so much as touch these important new tools.

The letter also correctly places human creativity, not technology, at the heart of this new kind of art:

We are speaking out today to advocate for a future of richer and more accessible creative innovation for generations of artists to come. Artists breathe life into AI, directing its innovation towards positive cultural evolution while expanding the essential human dimensions it inherently lacks.

It’s a pity the authors suing OpenAI miss the point: that ChatGPT, far from negating the importance of their creativity, actually validates and enhances it.

Featured image by Patrick Tomasso.

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