Yet again, the copyright industry demands to be shielded from technological progress – and the future

Back in October last year, Walled Culture was one of the first blogs to point out the huge impact that generative AI would have not only on copyright but also on creativity itself. Since then, the world seems to have split into two camps. One believes that generative AI will revolutionise everything, and create some kind of golden age; and the other that thinks the whole thing is a complete sham and/or will destroy civilisation.

The new AI systems certainly have massive problems, not least in the sphere of privacy, as I have written about elsewhere. But the response by the copyright world to generative AI is increasingly extreme, rather as a Walled Culture post back in February warned it might be. The latest manifestation of that tendency is a “Call for Safeguards Around Generative AI in the European AI Act” from “over 40 associations and trade unions that joined the Authors’ Rights Initiative”. It is a typical anti-technology, anti-progress set of demands from the copyright industry. Its signatories “demand” regulation of generative AI, and they demand it “NOW” (sic).

The document throws in just about every recent criticism of generative AI, some of them undoubtedly quite justified. But those criticisms are largely beside the point, because the letter is really about one thing: copyright, and shielding it from the latest technological advances. For the German Authors’ Rights Initiative, one path for achieving this is the EU’s AI Act, currently being finalised. The other is:

a re-balancing of the interests in copyright law. In particular, it should be clarified that the text and data mining exceptions laid down in Articles 3 and 4 of the DSM Directive (EU 2019/790) never allowed generative AI systems to substitute its sources without any compensation.

The EU Copyright Directive (EU 2019/790) was already steeply tilted in favour of the copyright world, as Walled Culture the book explains in detail (digital versions available as free downloads). The copyright industry’s new “Call for Safeguards” now wants it to be made even more unbalanced. The European Commission has already said:

Directive (EU) 2019/790 on copyright and related rights in the Digital Single Market introduces exceptions covering text and data mining (TDM) that are relevant in the AI context.

These exceptions provide balance between the protection of rightholders including artists and the facilitation of TDM, including by AI developers. The new rules permit rightholders to opt-out from the use of their content for TDM purposes.

Member States should have implemented this directive by June 2021. At this stage, the Commission believes that the creation of art works by AI does not deserve a specific legislative intervention. Therefore, the Commission is not planning to revise this directive.

Perhaps in response, the new document has an entire section devoted to what it calls “The EU’s misguided text-and-data mining exemption”. Part of it tries to address the argument (made by this blog too) that “use of copyright protected material to train generative AI should be permissible because such training would be equivalent to the (lawful) use of works to get ‘inspired’”:

The great art and music schools of the world do not train their students on stolen works. Moreover, for humans it takes years of intensive learning, observation of past creations and practicing to master their craft. At the end of such “training”, there is a human creative that can make contributions to cultural diversity with individual works that merit copyright protection. This in turn justifies allowing humans to be “inspired” by existing works. In contrast, AI foundation models use computing infrastructure and algorithms to create output that is similar to the training material, in record time. Despite the “training” such systems do not understand what they are doing.

The main argument here is based on the loaded and incorrect term “stolen”. Of course, nothing is “stolen” when a digital copy is made for the purpose of machine learning. This is an old rhetorical trick of the copyright industry, and its use here underlines why it should never be accepted.

The fact that it takes humans “years of intensive learning” to master a craft, which is better than computers that can do similar things in “record time”, is a curious thing to say, and seems to be arguing that slow is somehow inherently better than fast. Perhaps the signatories of the letter want to get rid of modern agriculture too, because it carries out tasks in record time, and lacks “years of intensive learning” to master the craft of farming. Similarly, the idea that people cannot be inspired by generative AI works because they were produced in a different way is narrow-minded and backward-looking. People can be inspired by anything, however it was produced – look at Andy Warhol’s output – so surely the more the merrier? The section concludes:

While generative AI is based on predictions, the highest proportionalities, people’s artistic and journalistic work stand out for their unpredictability: contextualisation, social and cultural location and highly individual attribution of meaning. Authors and performers add something new and unheard, unseen, unpredicted and untold to life and culture. In other words: machines don’t give you goosebumps. But if they substitute human works, there may not be many human creators left that do.

What’s astonishing here is that this (correct) analysis undermines the entire argument against generative AI. It is precisely what this blog has emphasised over the last few months. Generative AI is not a threat to artists because they do indeed “add something new and unheard, unseen, unpredicted and untold to life and culture”. The more bland output of generative AI will in fact emphasise the value of human creations that “give you goosebumps”.

AI art won’t substitute human works except those involving more mundane and unrewarding tasks, and that should surely be welcomed. It’s the same process that saw printing presses replace the mind-numbingly slow and boring process of copying texts manually, letter by letter. To be sure, some quill-wielding scribes became redundant, but the arrival of printing presses led to the creation of an entire modern-style publishing industry employing vastly more people. In the same way, generative AI will see the emergence of many new opportunities based on the technology, with millions of new jobs for creative individuals. The only industries that would fear this are ones that refuse to evolve and embrace it.

Featured image created with Stable Diffusion.

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