Copyright will not save us from AI

May 15, 2024

Much as I dislike the theft of human labor that feeds many of the generative AI products we see today, I have to agree with Cory Doctorow that copyright law is the wrong way to address the problem.

To frame the issue concretely: think of whom copyright law has benefited in the past, and then explain how it would benefit the individual creator when it is applied to AI. (Hint: it won’t.)

Copyright law is already abused and extended to an absurd degree today. It already overreaches. It impoverishes society by putting up barriers to creation and allowing toll-collectors to exist between citizen artists and their audience.

Labor law is likely what we need to lean on. Unions and guilds protect creators in a way that copyright cannot. Inequality and unequal bargaining power that lead to exploitation of artists and workers is what we need to address head-on.

Copyright will not save us.

I would go further to say that applying copyright law to AI will take us further from the equitable future we want. If copyright is successfully applied to AI, what we will see after the dust settles is a handful of media behemoths that profit mightily from AI, without slowing down the damage that AI does to the value of creative human labor.

I always return to this pithy guide by Emily Bender when thinking about this topic: we need to think of AI as automation, albeit one that is more effective at displacing a wide variety of human labor than ever. We can’t use copyright to stop automation; it will just enrich a different set of kingpins without stopping its effects.

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