Monday, May 20

The sleepy copyright office in the midst of a high-stakes fight over artificial intelligence

For decades, the Copyright Office was a small, sleepy office inside the Library of Congress. Every year the agency’s 450 employees register about half a million copyrights, the property rights in creative works, based on a two-century-old law.

In recent months, however, the office has suddenly found itself in the spotlight. Lobbyists from Microsoft, Google and the music and news industry have asked to meet Shira Perlmutter, of the copyright registry, and her staff. Thousands of artists, musicians and tech executives have written to the agency, and hundreds have asked to speak at listening sessions hosted by the office.

The attention comes from a first-of-its-kind overhaul of copyright law that the Copyright Office is spearheading in the age of artificial intelligence. Technology – which feeds on creative content – has overturned traditional rules on copyright, which offers owners of books, films and music the exclusive possibility of distributing and copying their works.

The agency plans to release three reports this year revealing its position on copyright law as it relates to artificial intelligence. The reports are set to have enormous consequences, weighing heavily on the courts, as well as lawmakers and regulators.

“We now find ourselves the subject of a lot of attention from the general public, so it’s a very exciting and challenging time,” Ms. Perlmutter said.

The Copyright Office’s review has thrown it into the middle of a high-stakes clash between the tech and media industries over the value of intellectual property to train new AI models that are likely to ingest books, news articles, songs, works of Copyrighted art and essays. generate writing or images. Since 1790, copyright law has protected works so that an author or artist “may reap the fruits of his or her own intellectual creativity,” the Copyright Office states on its website.

That law is now the subject of heated debate. Authors, artists, media companies and others claim that AI models infringe their copyrights. The technology companies say they are not replicating the materials and that they are consuming publicly available data on the Internet, practices that are within the bounds of the law. The fight has led to lawsuits, including one by the New York Times against ChatGPT creator OpenAI and Microsoft. And copyright owners are pushing for officials to rein in tech companies.

“What the Copyright Office is doing is a big deal because there are important principles of law and lots and lots of money involved,” said Rebecca Tushnet, a professor of copyright and intellectual property law at Harvard Law School. “Ultimately, the question is not whether these models will exist. It depends on who gets paid.”

Congress created the Copyright Office in 1870 to record licenses for books, maps, essays, and other creative works and archive such works for the use of lawmakers at the Library of Congress. The first recording was given to the “Philadelphia Spelling Book”, a children’s language book.

When Ms. Perlmutter, a veteran copyright official and former Time Warner intellectual property lawyer, was named to lead the Copyright Office in late 2020, she promised to bring the office into the modern age by focusing on big technology trends . He took inspiration from previous leaders, dealing with technological innovations including the still camera, discs, cameras, the Internet and streaming music, which required the office to evaluate how copyright would apply and advise Congress on the proposed updates to the law. .

Artificial intelligence quickly became a hot topic. Stephen Thaler, a computer scientist, tried to register an AI-generated work of art for a copyright by submitting an application on the Copyright Office website. In 2019, the office rejected his first attempt to register the piece, a pixelated scene of train tracks running through a tunnel covered in bushes and flowers called “A Recent Entry to Paradise.” In February 2022, Ms. Perlmutter rejected her second attempt to register the work for the same reasons: copyrights were only granted to original works created by humans.

The decision – the first on work produced by artificial intelligence – sets an important precedent. Artists and lawmakers flooded Ms. Perlmutter’s office with emails and phone calls demanding that she also weigh in on how artificial intelligence companies were using copyrighted material to train their systems.

In August it started the formal review of the law on artificial intelligence and copyright. The office said it will examine whether the use of intellectual property to train artificial intelligence models violates the law and will look more deeply into whether machine-generated works would benefit from copyright protection. The office said it will also look into how artificial intelligence tools create content that uses names, images and likenesses of individuals without their consent or compensation.

“The focus on artificial intelligence is intense,” Perlmutter said in an interview. “Current generative AI systems raise many complicated copyright issues – some have called them existential – that really require us to start addressing fundamental questions about the nature and value of human creativity.”

Interest in the office’s overhaul has been overwhelming. The office solicited public comments on the topic and received more than 10,000 responses in a form on its website. A typical policy review receives no more than 20 comments, the office said.

The tech companies argued in comments on the website that the way their models ingested creative content was innovative and legal. Venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, which has several investments in AI startups, warned in comments that any slowdown by AI companies in content consumption would “upend at least a decade of investment-backed expectations that they were based on the current understanding of the scope of copyright protection in this country.”

OpenAI, Microsoft, Meta (Facebook’s parent company), and Google are currently relying on a 2015 court decision in a case brought by the Authors Guild.

The guild sued Google in 2005 for scanning books for use in excerpts in its search engine results and for sharing with libraries. A court ruled that Google had not violated copyright law. It claimed that scanning entire books was allowed because Google did not make the complete book available and that it was a “transformative” use of copyrighted material. Google has relied on an exemption to copyright law known as “fair use” that allows limited replication of copyrighted material for purposes such as criticism, parody, or other transformative uses.

Google, Meta and AI start-up Anthropic all echoed arguments from that case in their comments to the Copyright Office, including that AI copies information to analyze data, not repurpose it for creative work.

Authors, musicians and the media industry argued that by taking their content without permission or licensing payments, AI companies were depriving them of their livelihoods.

“The absence of consent and compensation in this process is theft,” wrote Justine Bateman, the actress and author of “Family Ties,” in comments to the Copyright Office.

News Corp, which publishes the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, implored the office “not to lose sight of this simple truth: Protecting content creators is one of the core missions of copyright law.” (The Times also submitted a comment.)

Ms. Perlmutter said she and a staff of about two dozen copyright lawyers were reviewing every comment submitted to the office.

However, the office may not offer clear visions that satisfy either tech companies or creatives.

“As technology becomes more sophisticated, the challenges are exponentially more difficult, and the risks and benefits are exponentially greater,” Ms. Perlmutter said.