Ex-Amazon exec claims she was asked to ignore copyright law in race to AI

High-flying AI scientist claims unfair dismissal following pregnancy leave

A lawsuit is alleging Amazon was so desperate to keep up with the competition in generative AI it was willing to breach its own copyright rules.

The allegation emerges from a complaint [PDF] accusing the tech and retail mega-corp of demoting, and then dismissing, a former high-flying AI scientist after it discovered she was pregnant.

The lawsuit was filed last week in a Los Angeles state court by Dr Viviane Ghaderi, an AI researcher who says she worked successfully in Amazon's Alexa and LLM teams, and achieved a string of promotions, but claims she was later suddenly demoted and fired following her return to work after giving birth. She is alleging discrimination, retaliation, harassment and wrongful termination, among other claims.

Montana MacLachlan, an Amazon spokesperson, said of the suit: "We do not tolerate discrimination, harassment, or retaliation in our workplace. We investigate any reports of such conduct and take appropriate action against anyone found to have violated our policies."

As well as alleging sexism and discrimination against her, Ghaderi also accuses the tech giant of singling her out because she complained when Amazon allegedly breached its own rules against copyright infringement when it came to AI research.

According to Ghaderi's account in the complaint, she returned to work after giving birth in January 2023, inheriting a large language model project. Part of her role was flagging violations of Amazon's internal copyright policies and escalating these concerns to the in-house legal team. In March 2023, the filing claims, her team director, Andrey Styskin, challenged Ghaderi to understand why Amazon was not meeting its goals on Alexa search quality.

The filing alleges she met with a representative from the legal department to explain her concerns and the tension they posed with the "direction she had received from upper management, which advised her to violate the direction from legal."

According to the complaint, Styskin rejected Ghaderi's concerns, allegedly telling her to ignore copyright policies to improve the results. Referring to rival AI companies, the filing alleges he said: "Everyone else is doing it."

The allegations come at a difficult time for developers of AI models in relation to copyright infringement in training data. A string of legal cases have been launched concerning the consumption and reproduction of copyrighted text by generative AI. Novelists Paul Tremblay, Christopher Golden, Richard Kadrey, and comedian Sarah Silverman accused OpenAI of unlawfully scraping their work last year, while the New York Times is suing Microsoft and OpenAI, claiming the duo infringed on the newspaper's copyright by using its articles without permission.

A German-born doctor of electrical engineering, Ghaderi also made a series of allegations relating to her treatment by Amazon following the disclosure of her pregnancy.

According to the complaint, she joined the technology giant as a program manager in 2018 and received glowing appraisals. Although she left to join a startup in February 2021, Ghaderi was rehired by Amazon "based on her strong performance and relationships with colleagues."

Ghaderi was offered a new role with the opportunity to become an applied science manager. She rejoined as a engineering manager at the top of a salary band, leading a team of one scientist and two engineers. For the first five months of her return she received positive feedback from supervisors and direct reports, her filing claims.

In September 2022, Amazon put together a new science team looking at data quality and compliance in the Alexa organization. Ghaderi says in her complaint that she moved up a level of management to lead the team, and reported to the department director Daniel Marcu, on a higher grade than her previous manager.

On her first meeting with Marcu, she disclosed she was pregnant, information she had already shared with her previous manager. "Marcu, taken aback, responded by informing Ghaderi that she would be 'temporarily' transferred to report to a different employee, Mahesh Krishnakumar. Marcu admitted to Ghaderi that he was changing her reporting structure 'temporar[ily]' so he would not have to 'worry' about managing her team during her leave," the court documents allege.

Ghaderi claims Krishnakumar later pressured her into delaying the start of her maternity leave from the planned date of November 7. Agreeing to the request, she worked until November 15, 2022, "the day she was forced to undergo an emergency C-section," according to the filing.

Two weeks later, the launch of OpenAI's GPT-4 caused "panic" within Amazon, the complaint adds.

Ghaderi is also alleging a retaliation charge against Amazon "based on her complaints of violations of copyright law and policy" as well as on the basis of alleged violations of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.

After she returned to work in January 2023, Ghaderi claims she was told by colleagues that Krishnakumar had not been present for most of her absence, and when he was there he contributed little, resulting in a backlog of work. While managing Ghaderi, the documents allege Krishnakumar made "numerous discriminatory and harassing comments" such as "Take it easy, I have young daughters, so I know it's hard to be a woman with a newborn," or "You should spend time with your daughter," or "You should just enjoy being a new mother."

Ghaderi made repeated requests to be reinstated to her promised career path, according to the complaint, which goes on to allege that Marcu denied this request and said she should continue reporting to Krishnakumar. After Styskin joined the organization as a director, Ghaderi's complaint claims, Marcu said the decision was now his and she was never reinstated.

She goes on to allege that in a performance review, Amazon did not consider evidence from before her maternity leave. While she met the "high bar" expected by the company she needed to improve on "earning trust" and "delivering results," the review said. When she asked Krishnakumar for evidence to support this claim, he could not provide any, according to the complaint.

In March 2023, she complained to HR about the review, and the failure to reinstate her in the role she had been promised. After a meeting with Styskin and Krishnakumar, she again complained to HR that the "work context/dynamic ha[d] completely shifted from just 4.5 months ago when I had been moved… to work under [Marcu] before my maternity leave."

Shortly after the HR meeting, the complaint alleges Styskin told the AI exec she would be stripped of her team and demoted. He then asked her how she felt about the decision. When she asked for clarification, he allegedly responded: "You know, feelings, or are you saying, 'Oh, I'm from Germany so I don't have feelings'?"

Ghaderi then made a formal complaint to HR, alleging her demotion related to discrimination and retaliation relating to her pregnancy. The filing alleges she also mentioned Styskin's comment about her not having feelings owing to her nationality. Although HR did find the latter remark had fallen below Amazon's standards of conduct, it did not uphold the two other complaints.

In May 2023, Ghaderi took more protected leave, to return in August 2023, after which she was placed on Amazon's informal "Focus" performance review plan and her role was diminished again. The complaint claims she was then given another negative performance appraisal and told the career path available to her prior to her maternity leave was no longer on the table.

The filing continues that she subsequently requested to be moved to another team, but, allegedly, her line manager said because she was on the Focus plan she was ineligible for a transfer. After that, she was placed on the formal "Pivot" plan, which means leaving or complying with performance targets.

The complaint argues the plan was designed to ensure Ghaderi's failure.

For example, the first goal required her to create a plan to reduce data storage costs across the entire AmazonBot web crawling organization by 75 percent in just eight workdays.

Ms. Ghaderi asked several senior, high-performing engineers about this goal, and they confirmed that they did not believe it was possible within the given timeframe. Even if it were possible, Ms. Ghaderi had not been responsible for data storage until the week she was placed on the Pivot plan, meaning that she had no time to understand the existing storage architecture.

The filing adds that after she requested guidance on the task she was told she "should be able to do this with no help."

Ghaderi complained again to HR about pregnancy discrimination and being given impossible performance tasks, after which she alleges she was fired.

Her lawyers have demanded a jury trial and named Amazon.com Services, Andrey Styskin, and Mahesh Krishnakumar as defendants. They also cite other unnamed defendants. The lawsuit includes seven causes including violation of employment law against sex discrimination, pregnancy leave law, harassment, protection against retaliation. It also includes failure to take steps to prevent discrimination and protect whistleblowers, as well as wrongful termination of employment.

A case management conference has been set [PDF] for August 14. ®

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