News In Context

2024: The Year That U.S. Copyright Law Changes AI?

The tech industry hopes that 2024 will bring far wider application of Generative AI systems but, notes an article this week in Fast Company, lawsuits over copyrights could slow everything down as legal exposure becomes a bigger factor in AI companies’ plans for how and when to release new models.

The latest case involves The New York Times versus OpenAI and Microsoft. The Times sued the tech companies for copyright infringement on December 27, opening a new front in the legal battle over the unauthorized use of published work to train AI large language models..

The lawsuit, filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan, contends that millions of articles published by The Times were used to train automated chatbots that now compete with the news outlet as a source of reliable information. The suit does not include an exact monetary demand but it says the defendants should be held responsible for “billions of dollars in statutory and actual damages” related to the “unlawful copying and use of The Times’s uniquely valuable works.” It also calls for the companies to destroy any chatbot models and training data that use copyrighted material from The Times.

The courts have not yet addressed the question of whether AI companies are infringing on a massive scale by training their systems with a wealth of images, text and other data scraped from the Internet but the explosion of generative AI and the popularity of products from Microsoft-backed OpenAI, Meta Platforms and others have led to copyright cases by writers, artists, and other copyright holders.

Tech companies warn that the lawsuits could put the brakes on the fast development of the Generative AI industry. Silicon Valley venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz  was quoted as saying in a January 2 Reuters article. that “imposing the cost of actual or potential copyright liability on the creators of AI models will either kill or significantly hamper their development.”

News outlets argue that GenAI models could significantly impact traffic to their sites and their profitability.

In its law suit the Times says OpenAI’s training techniques enable the company to piggyback on the Times’s “massive investment in its journalism” without authorization or payment.  While the information—according to the complaint—appears to have been copied to give users access to that information through OpenAI and Microsoft, the Times notes that the company’s chatbots are now operating in direct competition with the Times as an information source.

In a statement, News/Media Alliance president and CEO Danielle Coffey expressed support of the Times’s decision to bring the lawsuit. “The New York Times’s complaint demonstrates the value of quality journalism to AI developers. These companies repurpose and monetize news content, competing with the very industry they are benefiting from. Quality journalism and GenAI can complement each other if approached collaboratively, but using journalism without permission or payment is unlawful, and certainly not fair use.”

If AI models, which need high-quality data, could also replicate what the New York Times offers, the news giant could potentially go out of business. “To me, it’s one of the most interesting legal cases today involving AI…the looming battle between one of the most well regarded publishers, The New York Times, and one of the most impactful generative AI firms OpenAI.” Marc Rotenberg, president and founder of the nonprofit  Center For AI and Digital Policy and an adjunct professor at Georgetown Law School, was quoted as saying in a VentureBeat January 3 story entitled “Why NYT vs OpenAI Will Be The Copyright Fight To Watch In 2024.”

The Times suit raises the prospect of a fissure in in the publishing sector if some major outlets follow the Times in pursuing legal action, while others negotiate for compensation from OpenAI, Microsoft and Google, which is developing its own AI efforts, notes The Wall Street Journal. Already, a few publishers, including the Associated Press and Axel Springer, the publisher of websites such as Politico and Business Insider, have reached commercial agreements to license their content to OpenAI.

There are other lawsuits that could test the rights of AI companies to scrape content from the Web to train AI tools, including one by several prominent book authors against OpenAI and another filed last February by Getty Images against Stability AI in Delaware, alleging that it had infringed on Getty’s copyrights.

An ongoing lawsuit involving Thomson Reuters  — the parent company of Reuters News — could be one of the first major bellwethers for AI copyright issues.The information-services company accused Ross Intelligence in 2020 of illegally copying thousands of “headnotes” from Thomson Reuters’ Westlaw legal research platform, which summarize points of law in court opinions, to train an AI-based legal search engine.

A federal judge ruled in September that the Delaware case must go to trial to determine whether Ross broke the law. The case could set a key early precedent on fair use and other questions for AI copyright litigation. A jury could begin to hear the case as early as next August.

Bradford Newman, a partner at law firm Baker McKenzie in its Palo Alto, told VentureBeat that he believes different courts will come to different conclusions. “Ultimately, I believe this is going to go to the Supreme Court,” he said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Copyright Office has launched an initiative to study issues raised by AI,  including the scope of copyright in works generated using AI tools and the use of copyrighted materials in AI training.

The Copyright Office has received requests from Congress and members of the public, including creators and AI users, to examine the issues raised for copyright, and it is already receiving applications for registration of works including AI-generated content. It is seeking feedback to determine if regulatory action is needed.

As Reuters noted in its January 2 article “If 2023 was the year that artificial intelligence changed everything, 2024 could go down as the year that U.S. copyright law changes AI.”



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About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.