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11 Jan 2023
We hear that the widely touted ChatGPT can do a respectable job writing high school essays, malware ransom notes, and the like. When it writes a document, who owns the copyright?
An acquaintance asked ChatGPT for its advice and unsurprisingly it suggested updating copyright law to give special recognition to material written by AI software. (Tomorrow I plan to ask an herbalist if I should use more herbs.)
So here's a counterproposal: it is well established under US law that only people can be the authors of copyrighted works. There was the famous monkey selfie case in which a macaque monkey grabbed a camera and took pictures of himself, and there are pictures painted by elephants. Those are all in the public domain. After a flurry of lawsuits, court found that not only was the monkey not the author, the photographer who owned the camera and set up the situation so the monkeys could grab it isn't the author either, because he didn't take the pictures.
The copyright office's position is quite clear, animals and machines cannot be authors, only people can. So material written by computers isn't copyrightable either. I suppose that if someone gave the computer sufficiently detailed directions about exactly what to write, there might be a thin copyright on the result as a derivative work of the instructions but otherwise, nope.
I can see how the people who run large generative models would be happy to have copyright as yet another way to monetize their product, but where's the public benefit? They can already set whatever license fees they want for people to use them, as we are seeing as Microsoft negotiates a deal with OpenAI to use the GPT technology in the Bing search engine. (I hope they will deal with its bad habit of Making S* Up when it doesn't know the answer, but I'm not holding my breath.)
There's a whole separate can of copyright worms about how AI responses might be derived from the material they were trained on. Because of the way ChatGPT works, it seems unlikely that it would produce recognizable quotes unless those quotes were already familiar phrases that appeared repeatedly in the sources, but there have been lots of complaints that their generative art program DALL-E borrows recognizable styles from living artists.
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