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Why Generative AI Violates Copyright - for skeptics


There is a thread of thought about AI, that it isn't violating copyright, because, just like humans, it is just synthesizing new works from it's learning.

I was a little on the fence about this, but after a bit of mental wanderings, I side hard on the side that it is violating copyright. To get you there, let me take you on a

A journey

When it is dark at night, and there is a tree in the window or a coat on a hat rack, but see a human there, we are riding on our instinct to see people in the shadow. When looking at a grain of wood or a spill of mustard, and see faces in the shapes, it is that instinct that is striking again. We are always searching and improperly identifying the other that isn't there.

AI apocalypse coming?

Sam Altman runs an AI company.

He never shuts up about how much we need to fear the coming AI apocalypse and how the government needs to regulate it and make him and other large companies be the stewards of AI so that the world can remain safe and we don't end up with Skynet.

Sounds like he is using regulation to secure a monopoly on his amazing product.


We are just seeing what the magician wants us to see.

His AI gives us the illusion of close to human level intelligence the same way we see a person out that dark window when it is not there.


The player piano was a brilliant invention. A long strip of paper is fed into a machine so that each line of it, corresponding to a moment in time, has holes in it at various places to denote what keys should be pressed to produce notes on the piano. It gets read through, and beautiful music gets played on it, and that 1800s bar that has it playing in the corner has happy patrons and the owner doesn't need to pay someone to play it.

He does however have to pay the person to sell him some new music sheets to feed into it (patrons get bored so easily of the same old tune). The maker of the player piano is also making the sheets to feed into the piano. The maker isn't really a composer, but he pays for the rights to the music to be put on the sheet. It really cuts into his profits though, and the maker really would prefer not to have to pay the original musician.

He is an inventive dude though and he makes another machine. It can take in 3 sheets of music he already already had made, and through some mechanical trickery it will blend then together with some randomness to create something that is a new song that is a chunked together Frankenstein's monster of the pieces of the original songs.

His mind didn't form any of this music, the mechanical process just kaleidoscoped the original works into what he had.

According to current copyright law, distribution of this new piece would not be transformative, and would not grant him rights over the new piece and also would likely put him in hot water for violating the copyright of the 3 original pieces.

Sweaty soupy brow

Any Warhol made a painting of Campbell's soup cans and fairly photo perfect. They were all lined up on rows of the painting, and in a different context, they would be violating copyright. But it was a transformative piece that was born from his imagination that was giving us a message. I'm not sure what it was, but I think it was something about consumerism or branding or something.

He stitched together something from someone's work and made it his own. Not through mechanical processes, but from imagination and personal meaning, and made something that was defensible as "transformative" - a legal word that is part of copyright laws. It wasn't made just from the "sweat of his brow" to duplicate another's efforts, but from his creative desire go reframe it to mean something very different of what the original creator was intending.

Maybe this riding on the edge of what we do and don't allow is what drove him here.

Back to the meat art grinder

Sam Altman's AI is more like the what the hypothetical player piano guy made. Feed in several billion works of writing or art, give it a description of what you want, and turn the crank on the side of the grinder and it will pick out bits of other people's works in a coherent enough way that you will feel satisfied that it matched your original prompt, and through the primitive parts of your brain, thanks to the ghosts of all the creative humans who unwillingly provided the inputs to this machine, you will feel that tingle that you might be communicating with a sentient being, when in fact you are speaking to something no smarter than a toaster.

That illusion is what the AI manufactures want us to buy in on, and fear of Sci fi terminators killing us all sells the illusion. If the AI was a semi-sentient being that they created, maybe that might lead to interesting thoughts about whether there was something being creative here, but there is really no thought, just probabilistic regurgitation. There is nothing "transformative" in the legal copyright sense of the word (which, as often is the case, is not the same as the non-legal oriented lay definition). There is no meaningful guiding hand here, and if you give just the right prompts to the machine, you will get something nearly identical to the original piece that was copied (though they are doing some work to prevent this so we don't see the machine behind the curtain).

Hopefully the courts will see this and slam them to the mat legally for what they have done. I fear however that the magic man has already tricked us so far that we will never get that rabbit back in the hat.