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Artists file class-action lawsuit saying AI artwork violates copyright laws


Artificial intelligence, AI, can now generate images that replicate an artist's style in seconds. And some artists are not happy. Darian Woods and Adrian Ma from NPR's daily economics podcast, The Indicator, look at a new lawsuit that raises questions about AI and ownership.

DARIAN WOODS, BYLINE: Kelly McKernan is a visual artist. And when they were a teenager, Kelly started posting paintings onto an art website called DeviantArt - for money but just for the love of it.

KELLY MCKERNAN: Just starting out, very eager for feedback and community, you know, just really excited to share.

WOODS: And Kelly built a solid following, continuing to post on DeviantArt over the next two decades.

ADRIAN MA, BYLINE: When the first widely used AI art generators came online last year, Kelly saw it as a curiosity at first. That delight for Kelly soon faded away. And that is because Kelly found out that when people were typing in their prompts to these art generators, they were using the words, in the style of Kelly McKernan a lot, in fact, over 12,000 times.

MCKERNAN: And there's more and more images with my name attached to it that I can see my hand in, but it's not my work. I'm kind of feeling violated here.

WOODS: And then DeviantArt did something that made Kelly livid. So remember, this is the website that Kelly had been uploading artwork to for free over the last 20 years. DeviantArt was now offering a new service where website viewers could pay a monthly subscription fee to get access to an AI art generator. And this AI art generator had been trained on countless images from artists like Kelly, but the DeviantArt artists wouldn't get a cent. Kelly started writing about this on social media. And soon, another artist got in touch. And she wanted Kelly to join a class-action lawsuit. Kelly said yes.

MA: The lawsuit was filed in mid-January against DeviantArt and two AI companies. And it alleges, among other things, that the companies violated copyright law.

WOODS: The claim argues the AI companies compressed those billions of images and stored those images' information, which it then uses to make new works. And so that copying of information, they allege, breaches copyright. They argue it's a 21st century collage tool. We asked the companies involved for interviews. One declined. One didn't respond. And Stability AI gave the statement, please note that we take these matters seriously. Anyone that believes that this isn't fair use does not understand the technology and misunderstands the law.

MA: Andres Guadamuz is a legal scholar at the University of Sussex, and he's got a different interpretation of what AI models are doing when they learn. Andres describes models as learning patterns from the original images and brushstrokes and styles. And those are things that are not covered by copyright law. So he doesn't think that collage is actually the right metaphor here.

ANDRES GUADAMUZ: Even if it was, I think that they would have a problem with copyright anyway because collage is an accepted art form. It's considered to be fair use.

WOODS: Collages are often decided on a case-by-case basis, hinging on whether it's fair use. Fair use means exceptions to copyright law that allow certain uses of copyrighted works, like for education or if the new work radically transforms the original into something new. And whether the AI companies were engaging in fair use when they copied some kind of information from the original work - that will potentially be what determines this case.

MA: Adrian Ma.

WOODS: Darian Woods. NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Darian Woods is a reporter and producer for The Indicator from Planet Money. He blends economics, journalism, and an ear for audio to tell stories that explain the global economy. He's reported on the time the world got together and solved a climate crisis, vaccine intellectual property explained through cake baking, and how Kit Kat bars reveal hidden economic forces.
Adrian Ma
Adrian Ma covers work, money and other "business-ish" for NPR's daily economics podcast The Indicator from Planet Money.