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AI and Copyright Battles: The Verdict on ‘Machine Creation’

In a defining moment for the fusion of technology and intellectual property, on August 18, 2023, Judge Beryl A. Howell of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia handed down a pivotal ruling. The decision? AI-generated output, specifically the visual work titled “A Recent Entrance to Paradise,” isn’t eligible for copyright registration.

The Case at Hand: AI as ‘Author’

Plaintiff Stephen Thaler’s assertion was truly groundbreaking. According to his application to the U.S. Copyright Office (USCO), the artwork wasn’t crafted by human hands. Instead, it was “autonomously created by a computer algorithm running on a machine” – a machine he termed the “Creativity Machine.” Thaler, while claiming the machine to be the artwork’s ‘author,’ presented himself as the copyright claimant, leveraging his status as the machine’s owner.

The USCO’s initial decision in 2019 declined the copyright registration citing it “lack[ed] the human authorship necessary to support a copyright claim.” This stance was upheld even after internal appeals within the USCO.

Unfolding the Legal Drama: Human vs Machine

The crux of the legal argument rested on one question: Is work autonomously generated by AI eligible for copyright? The court’s exploration of this central issue referenced the statutory definition of “authors” as per the U.S. Constitution. The verdict was that “[USCO] did not err in denying the copyright application presented by plaintiff. United States copyright law protects only works of human creation.”

While neither the Copyright Act nor the Constitution explicitly defines “author”, the court leaned on dictionary meanings and the inherent objective of the constitutional clause – “incentivizing individuals to create and invent.”

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Historical context further fortified the court’s position. Notably, the 1909 Copyright Act explicitly stated that only a “person” could secure copyright. The 1976 Copyright Act carried forward this premise. Moreover, past legal precedents like Burrow-Giles Lithographic v. Sarony and Goldstein v. California consistently emphasized the inherent human element central to copyrightability.

Emerging Questions on AI and Copyright

This landmark case sparks intricate debates on AI’s role in the creative process. AI does pose pressing questions, such as the level of human interaction required for copyright or the challenge of assessing the originality of AI creations. But this specific case, according to the court, didn’t delve into those complexities. Thaler’s claims firmly presented the Creativity Machine as the sole creator, negating any human involvement.

Looking Ahead: A Legal Odyssey?

Predictably, given Thaler’s past legal escapades against the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, an appeal seems to be on the horizon. But the prevailing wisdom suggests a similar outcome. Still, even a hint of human involvement could shift the scales, as the bar for copyrightability, as set by Feist v. Rural Telephone, remains remarkably low.

For those contemplating copyright in a partly AI-crafted work, there’s hope. As of March 2023, guidance from the Copyright Office indicated a path forward. Applicants need to transparently disclose AI’s role and clearly define the human contributor’s role.

In light of these evolving intersections between AI and copyright, the Copyright Office has initiated a dialogue. They’ve invited comments on this burgeoning field, setting a deadline until 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023.

In Conclusion

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The unfolding legal narrative around AI and copyright is emblematic of our times. As technology pushes boundaries, the legal realm grapples with redefining conventions. This dance between progress and precedent promises to shape our collective future in unprecedented ways.

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