I’m gonna preface all of this with I am NOT a lawyer, and copyright law, especially, is one where frequently the winner is the person in court with the most money. So below is largely my opinion…
Copyright isn’t a god given right – there’s no mention of it in the bible and humanity flourished specifically because it didn’t have IP laws of any sort for a long long time (someone had a good idea? we’d take it and build on it).
But it was really the invention of the printing press and the ability to mechanically copy materials that set up the start of what we come to know as copyright – the first true copyright laws are called the Statute of Anne (enacted in 1710) and set copyright as 14 years with a possible extension of 14 years by either the publisher who the materials were licensed to or the author.
Ostensibly the point was to ensure the copyright holder could make money for their material, for a limited time and they would be encouraged to produce new material.
Of course over time copyright has gotten longer and longer, and with some notable exceptions, authors will generally had that copyright over to a publisher so they are no longer the owners of the copyright and the publisher can get all the extended goodness of owning it. Different countries cover it in different ways, the UK mostly follows the US lead. The US lead mostly follows what Sonny (from Sonny and Cher) and the Disney corporation want (mad, isn’t it?).
The French, btw, are the most friendly to authors on this front – their droit d’auteur laws developed sort of in parallel to the UK laws prevent an author signing copyright over to anyone.
The US has a thing called Fair Use (in the UK our equivalent is called Fair Dealing), the idea being that as long as you only use a piece of the material (for example reproducing an image for review) that’s fine. There are other areas of exceptions (the UK allows you to use large amounts of material for research for non-profit – in theory how google uses it’s data, as it’s commercialised is outside of this, but we all used to find google useful so it’s been largely left alone, plus who could afford to fight them on this?).
AI companies are leaning on fair use and fair dealing for the bulk of what they do – swallowing up great gobs of copyright material and then regenerating something “new” from the result. Like chopping up every word in every book ever written and then mixing it with a user’s prompt to get a whole new set of words.
And there’s lots and lots of reasons why they might be right and they might be wrong – if the produced work doesn’t even have a faint echo of any of the material? If it was trained on out of copyright work? If the prompt was say much bigger than the generated output? And i’m sure there’s a whole bunch of other exceptions, and there’s so much money to be had on the AI front that companies will spend a fortune fighting you in court.
BUT, I think what we’ve all forgotten is what the point of copyright was in the first place – a way to give people the ability to earn a living from their creations.
On that front AI holds the keys to a much more dystopian world.
We’ve already started to see Ai’s trained on Ai output that amounts to gibberish, it still needs new inputs, but ai as it stands is likely to hollow out the middle or low ends of the creative industries. Students who would learn the basic craft of drawing might end up training on ai prompt generation and never actually learn good image composition, designers who would be expected to ply their trade on consumer advertising before they’d get a sniff of working at apple, might lose work/income because ai design software can do work that is just-good-enough. We’re in danger of an air lock in the plumbing of the creative industries.
Even without creative stuff AI tools can still be powerful (and useful) but I think governments have to recognise that they don’t want to hollow out the creative arts, and while ai fanboys can argue the bit out as to whether what they’re doing falls under copyright fair use or not, the fact remains it might be good for them, but it’s not good for creatives.