US Copyright Office sued for denying AI model authorship of digital image

What do we want? Robot rights! When do we want them? 01001110 01101111 01110111!

The US Copyright Office and its director Shira Perlmutter have been sued for rejecting one man's request to register an AI model as the author of an image generated by the software.

You guessed correct: Stephen Thaler is back. He said the digital artwork, depicting railway tracks and a tunnel in a wall surrounded by multi-colored, pixelated foliage, was produced by machine-learning software he developed. The author of the image, titled A Recent Entrance to Paradise, should be registered to his system, Creativity Machine, and he should be recognized as the owner of the copyrighted work, he argued.

(Owner and author are two separate things, at least in US law: someone who creates material is the author, and they can let someone else own it.)

Thaler's applications to register and copyright the image behalf of Creativity Machine, however, have been turned down by the Copyright Office twice. Now, he has sued the government agency and Perlmutter. "Defendants' refusal to register the copyright claim in the work is contrary to law," Thaler claimed in court documents [PDF] filed this month in a federal district court in Washington DC.

"The agency actions here were arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion and not in accordance with the law, unsupported by substantial evidence, and in excess of Defendants' statutory authority," the lawsuit claimed.

Thaler's lawyer, Ryan Abbott, believes the Copyright Office should overturn its previous decision and process Thaler's original application. "The refusal to register the copyright claim in the work should be set aside and the application reinstated," he argued.

In the Copyright Office's latest rejection to Thaler's request, submitted in February, officials made it clear today's copyright laws do not support content created by non-human entities.

"Copyright law only protects 'the fruits of intellectual labor' that 'are founded in the creative powers of the [human] mind' ... The office will not register works 'produced by a machine or mere mechanical process' that operates 'without any creative input or intervention from a human author' because, under the statute, 'a work must be created by a human being'," the government body ruled.

"Thaler must either provide evidence that the work is the product of human authorship or convince the office to depart from a century of copyright jurisprudence. He has done neither."

Thaler, however, insists the AI-generated image should be registered to his machine and the copyright ownership should be in his name as he owns the code. "The claim is that the machine's owner owns the copyright, the same way you own a physical painting made by a 3D printer," Abbott told The Register. "This encourages people to build machines that make useful stuff."

The Copyright Office referred to two previous copyright cases, one being the infamous macaque Naruto, which was said to have snapped a grinning selfie using a man's camera and was ultimately denied copyright rights for being a monkey.

In his lawsuit, Thaler insisted he should own the copyright of his image since he owns its creator. "You can't sue an AI, but you can sue the person who made the AI or who is using the AI to do something infringing," Abbott told us. "It depends on the specific facts of the case."

Thaler has tried to argue the picture was generated by his software as a "work made for hire" for a human. The Copyright Office, however, said that didn't apply in this case since Creativity Machine was not a human and could not enter into an employment agreement.

Abbott, however, said that refusal did not address Thaler's entitlement to any copyright in the work.

The US Copyright Office declined to comment.

This case comes at a time when more and more people are using artificial intelligence, such as Midjourney and DALLE 2, to generate vivid artwork that looks human-made from written prompts. ®

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