Most generative AI tools don’t seem to recognize or respect copyrights. It's a big deal

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Most generative AI tools don’t seem to recognize or respect copyrights. Is that a much, much bigger deal than we think?

A simple Google Image search for ‘best ai art.’ It’s about to get a lot better (Google)

MANY FOLKS ARE upset that generative AI apps like ChatGPT and Midjourney don’t respect copyrights.

To others, that’s a feature, not a bug. See, the fact that they’re trained on copyrighted imagery is one of the reasons that startup imagemaking apps like Midjourney produce “better” results than apps that avoid copyright protected images, like Adobe's Firefly.

(The fact that Firefly’s algorithm hasn’t been trained on any copyrighted images is something Adobe is proud of. At the same time, that's also why Firefly’s output is considered worse than Midjourney’s.)

So, is copyright a thing of the past, or what?

PLOT TWIST! A lot of the folks upset with generative AI firms for ignoring copyrights may have the underlying equation wrong.

Most people think that copyright laws, at least American ones, protect artists.

That's backwards. As Wired magazine points out, American copyright laws were originally enacted to protect the public.

When first written, American copyright protections were meant to last just 14 years. After that amount of time —the thinking went— anyone should be able to freely remix whatever's out there to create new art, which would benefit the public, and let new makers earn a buck or two as well.

SEEN THIS WAY, short copyright terms help artists, by making it totally legal for them to riff on existing bodies of work to create new output.

That’s why it is gigantic corporations that have been pushing the hardest to extend copyright restrictions, not your quintessential starving artists. After all, recognizable IP is valuable. Just look at the list of highest grossing films of all time.

For decades, Disney and others have successfully lobbied the US government to lengthen the term of copyright protections covering Mickey Mouse and other characters.

Despite those efforts, Disney just lost the exclusive rights to a valuable and recognizable piece of intellectual property. Horror film fans noticed a very unusual Winnie the Pooh movie earlier this year. The poorly reviewed, low budget film had a giant Pooh as the villain. And although it did make money, the film’s legacy may well be the principle it affirms, more than its plot: reinventing a recognizable character (you didn’t create) is increasingly common, and it is going to be increasingly legal too.

WE'RE IN A wild new era.

As this newsletter has written, generative AI is eliminating countless barriers to entry to the creative fields —because it’s been trained on the world’s creative output to date. And it may be too late to filter out all of the copyright protected works that the algorithms have already ingested.

The implications of that are larger than we think.

COPYRIGHT PROTECTIONS ENFORCE scarcity. (Hold that thought.)

If you want to see a new Star Wars movie or series, for example, only Disney can make it for you. But generative AI is upending that equation.

Today, if you really want a new Star Wars, you can pretty much make your own with generative AI. ChatGPT can generate the script for you. Midjourney can make the cover art. And then you can bring (a version of) it to life using text to animation AI tools, which are totally a thing.

It’s not a stretch to imagine text to hyperrealistic video soon becoming a thing too, perhaps before the year is even out.

THIS IS THE foreshock of an historic, society-changing, economic earthquake.

The mainshock is going to move most media, most of human knowledge, and many, many, many services —including complex, problem solving ones— from an era of scarcity to an era of complete abundance.

WE THINK OF scarcity as a synonym for “rare,” but it’s more nuanced that that.

According to economists, “scarcity” happens when there’s only a finite amount of both human and non-human resources out there that can create “economic goods.” (That’s just fancy economics speak for stuff that can be sold.)

But zoom out: generative AI is a theoretically infinite, non-human resource that can create infinite (heretofore) economic goods.

Stay with me here.

According to the economists, if scarcity no longer exists, then an infinite amount of goods can be produced, and human wants could be fully satisfied Awesome!

But if scarcity no longer exists, “economic goods” (aka stuff that can be sold) will disappear with it. That’s not necessarily awesome.

BUT WE’RE ON the precipice of a “post scarcity economy.”

A lot of goods (like art, music, literature, and movies) and a lot of services (like copywriting, legal analysis, tax preparation, and medical diagnoses) that provide a lot of livelihoods are all about to be produced in great abundance, with minimal human labour.

A world where all of those (previously) economic goods are available cheaply or even freely, is totally uncharted territory. Like it or not, we’re all entering it


Bottom line: if your digital goods or services are going to remain economic (sellable), they’d better be really novel or otherwise really excellent, or they’d better come with some sort of additional, not-easily-replicable service or experience.

Welcome to the age of abundance.


Why Adobe’s generative AI imagemaker Firefly is painting such “ugly” pictures, especially when compared to Midjourney. (Spoiler: Adobe’s model hasn’t been taught on copyrighted images) »»

AI art tools Stable Diffusion and Midjourney targeted with copyright lawsuit »»

Scarcity: What it means in economics and what causes it »»

Why the world needs a horror Winnie the Pooh »»

Mickey Mouse will be public domain soon—here’s what that means »»

Written by Jon Kallus. Any feedback? Simply reply.

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