Artificial Intelligence

Ed Sheeran, Vanilla Ice, and a Monkey Walk Into A.I. Copyright Law

If government officials and lawyers create a new legal framework for A.I.-generated content, society risks losing the potential benefits of the next tech revolution.


Government officials and lawyers worldwide are using artificial intelligence (A.I.) as a justification to grab more power. The latest examples come in the form of copyright ownership. But if the government gets its hands on A.I. development in order to "protect" copyright owners, America will miss being a leader in the 21st-century tech revolution. We don't need a new regulatory framework to deal with the new ownership questions A.I. poses. Instead, existing copyright law addresses the concerns many folks currently have with A.I.  

European regulators are already demanding that copyright law be expanded to include any copyrighted content that might have been used by an A.I. for creation. Unfortunately, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman is feeling the pressure and capitulating.

In the United States, there's the impending announcement of Vice President Kamala Harris as A.I. czar. While some may see this as a step forward, it raises concerns about government overreach in regulating A.I. as the White House is calling for A.I. systems to block speech it deems "disinformation." 

If government officials and lawyers create a new legal framework for A.I.-generated content, society risks losing the potential benefits of the tech revolution. Instead, relying on existing copyright law will address ownership questions, promote creativity, and ensure the growth of generative A.I. technology. 

The cases of an unlikely group—Ed Sheeran, Vanilla Ice, and a monkey—show that existing copyright law is more than able to solve the latest concerns sparked by A.I.  

Last week, singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran won a copyright case for his hit song, "Thinking Out Loud." The question presented to the court was whether Sheeran's song infringed on Marvin Gaye's copyright for "Let's Get It On." After three hours of deliberation, the jury said Sheeran was not in violation of copyright law.

In the early 1990s, rapper Vanilla Ice faced a lawsuit for sampling "Under Pressure" in his song "Ice Ice Baby." Settled out of court, it raised questions about copyright protection and using samples in new works: was the chord new or derivative? These issues apply to A.I.-generated content, as A.I. algorithms rely on existing data. 

In 2011, a macaque monkey named Naruto took selfies with a photographer's camera. When the photographer included the picture in his book, he was sued by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which claimed that Naruto owned the photo and that the photographer was committing copyright infringement. But the Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit said nonhumans couldn't claim copyright protection. After all, the U.S. Copyright Office's definition of "an original work" says it must have "a human author."

In all these cases, courts and artists used existing copyright law to settle novel ownership questions. We can do the same for A.I.-generated content. 

First, lawmakers must recognize that A.I.-generated content isn't eligible for copyright protection without human involvement. This aligns with the U.S. Copyright Office's stance, ensuring that copyright law remains focused on human creativity. 

Second, it is important to acknowledge that A.I. algorithms rely on existing data, much like Sheeran and Vanilla Ice's samples of other songs. 

To avoid stifling innovation, courts must allow limited use of copyrighted material in A.I.-created works. This could be achieved through the existing doctrine of fair use, which allows copyrighted material to be used for commentary, criticism, or parody without permission. 

Policy makers should extend fair use to include A.I.-generated content, provided that the new work doesn't harm the market for the original work or its derivatives. This encourages A.I. innovation while respecting original authors' rights. 

Europe's efforts to outlaw A.I. unless authorized also demonstrate the dangers of excessive government control. If America follows this path, we risk stifling innovation and losing our competitive edge in the global tech landscape. 

Policy makers must ensure that America remains at the forefront of the tech revolution. Despite calls for new laws, the cases of Ed Sheeran, Vanilla Ice, and a monkey show that existing copyright law can adapt to novel situations and technologies without wasting legislative time and stifling creativity and innovation. Let's use it to our advantage and keep A.I. innovation alive.