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  • Writer's pictureDavid Baker

AI as Artist, Federal Court Not Impressed

In a landmark decision handed down on August 18, 2023, a judge delivered a ruling with potentially far-reaching consequences for the protection of works generated by artificial intelligence (“AI”). This ruling may hold significant implications for those involved in the creation of AI-generated works, both in part and in full.

The case centered around Stephen Thaler, the owner of a computer system known as the "Creativity Machine." Thaler claimed that this AI system autonomously generated visual artworks, one of which he sought to copyright under the title "A Recent Entrance to Paradise." In his copyright application, Thaler listed the Creativity Machine as the author and himself as the owner. However, the Copyright Office rejected this application, citing the absence of human authorship as a prerequisite for copyright protection. Thaler contested this decision by taking legal action in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The crucial issue in this case was whether a work created entirely by an artificial system without human involvement could be eligible for copyright protection, and the court ruled in the negative.

The court's analysis began by recognizing that copyright protection naturally applies to works that meet specific criteria, with a certificate of registration serving as confirmation of pre-existing copyright. Therefore, the pivotal question was whether an AI-generated work fundamentally met these criteria.

Although the court acknowledged a history of copyright law adapting to encompass works created with evolving technologies, it underscored that such adaptations always involved human participation. Consequently, the court emphasized that copyright has never extended to protect works generated solely by autonomous technology, as human authorship is an essential foundation of copyright law. The court cited precedent cases that found works lacking human authorship to be uncopyrightable. In this case, because Thaler explicitly stated that the "Creativity Machine" generated the work independently, it lacked human authorship and was thus deemed uncopyrightable.

While this case was straightforward in its judgment due to the explicit absence of human involvement, it raises critical questions regarding works created through a combination of human and AI efforts. Notably, a previous Copyright Office decision found AI-generated portions of such works to be uncopyrightable. However, the legal landscape is still evolving, and the copyrightability of such works may depend on the specific facts, such as the degree of human guidance and the interplay between AI and human contributions.

Why It Matters. This court decision highlights the importance of human authorship in the context of copyright protection, specifically for works created by AI systems. While the ruling directly addressed the absence of human involvement, it prompts a broader conversation about the copyright status of works resulting from a blend of AI and human creativity—a discussion that could significantly impact businesses and artists alike in navigating the evolving landscape of AI-generated content and copyright law.

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