Lawrence Lessig on copyright, generative AI and the right to train

Lawrence Lessig is the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, and one of the biggest names in the world of digital copyright. Walled Culture’s 2021 interview with him runs through many of his key ideas and projects, although sadly he does not work directly in the field of copyright any more. However, he evidently takes a keen interest in the developments there, and The Verge has a fascinating interview with Lessig that explores one particularly interesting area: how copyright should apply to the currently-trendy area of generative AI. Here’s his view on whether it is permissible to train AI systems on copyright material:

whether you call it fair use or not, using creative work to learn something, whether you’re a machine or not, should not be a copyright event.

He goes on:

if it’s out there in the world, somebody has legal access to it and they use it to learn, that’s not a copyright event. Reading a book is not a copyright event. Even though when you do it online, it technically copies, the whole point is it shouldn’t be a copyright event because the equivalence — reading — is the sort of thing that was free. It was protected as free. Copyright was a narrow range of controls that we had to impose to create incentives for authors. I don’t think any of those controls are relevant to the context of the training. I’m a very strong “Training is free.”

Or, as a recent Walled Culture post put it: “the right to read is the right to train”. As regards the copyright status of AI-generated works, Lessig has a rather unusual position:

The view I have, which is surprising to people, or people who know anything, the 10 people in the world who know anything about my views about copyright is that I absolutely think that, when you use AI to create work, there ought to be a copyright that comes out of that.

But there’s a tweak Lessig would make:

I would say you get a copyright with these AI systems if and only if the AI system itself registers the work and includes in the registration provenance so that I know exactly who created it and when

Lessig goes into more detail about this novel approach in The Verge’s interview. It’s well-worth reading for that, and for his thoughts on social media, disinformation, and freedom of speech. It’s good to see Lessig still applying his intelligence and experience to these questions, but it’s a pity he is no longer active in fighting for better copyright as he used to.

Feature image by Walled Culture.

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