Authors call for AI companies to stop using their work without consent
Margaret Atwood, Viet Thanh Nguyen and 8,000 others have signed an open letter asking that permission is obtained and compensation given when a writer’s work is used by AI
Authors including Margaret Atwood, Viet Thanh Nguyen and Philip Pullman have signed a petition calling for artificial intelligence companies to stop using writers’ work without consent or credit.
The open letter, which has been set up by the Authors Guild, America’s largest professional organisation for writers, is addressed to the CEOs of OpenAI, Alphabet, Meta, Stability AI, and IBM. It presents these generative AI leaders with three demands, asking that these companies: “Obtain permission for use of our copyrighted material”; “Compensate writers fairly for the past and ongoing use of our works”, and “Compensate writers fairly for the use of our works in AI output, whether or not the outputs are infringing under current law”.
Maya Shanbhag Lang, president of the Authors Guild, said: “The output of AI will always be derivative in nature. AI regurgitates what it takes in, which is the work of human writers. It’s only fair that authors be compensated for having ‘fed’ AI and continuing to inform its evolution.”
National book award-winning novelist Jonathan Franzen, My Sister’s Keeper author Jodi Picoult and nonfiction author and journalist Michael Pollan are among the letter’s nearly 8,000 signatories.
“The Authors Guild is taking an important step to advance the rights of all Americans whose data and words and images are being exploited, for immense profit, without their consent”, said Franzen. “In other words, pretty much all Americans over the age of six.”
The median writing-related income in 2022 for full-time writers in the US was just $23,330, according to the Authors Guild’s most recent income survey. “The advent of AI technology further exacerbates these challenges and will make it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for writers – particularly those from underrepresented communities – to earn a living from the craft most spent years if not decades perfecting”, a statement from the Authors Guild read. “When writers have to give up their profession, it is a grave problem for all of us, not just the writers, because far fewer great books get written and published; and a free, democratic culture depends on a healthy, diverse ecosystem in which all views and voices are heard and ideas exchanged.”
This petition is the latest in a series of steps taken by literary figures to combat the rising use of AI in the books sector. Earlier this month two North American authors, Mona Awad and Paul Tremblay, filed a lawsuit against OpenAI, claiming that the organisation breached copyright law.
OpenAI is the company behind the tool ChatGPT, a chatbot that is “trained” by copying large swathes of text and extracting information from it. The suit filed on behalf of Awad and Tremblay argued that “ChatGPT generates summaries of plaintiffs’ copyrighted works – something only possible if ChatGPT was trained on plaintiffs’ copyrighted works”.
This line of argument could be difficult to prove, as ChatGPT may work “exactly the same” if it had not ingested the books themselves, Andres Guadamuz, a reader in intellectual property law at the University of Sussex, told the Guardian at the time. This is because it may have been trained on non-copyrighted information such as internet users discussing the books.
The UK’s leading industry body for writers, the Society of Authors (SoA) has backed both the legal action taken by Awad and Tremblay and this new petition by the Authors Guild. Nicola Solomon, chief executive of the SoA, said she and her colleagues “fully support” the open letter. “The principles of consent, credit and compensation are bedrocks of our intellectual property regime, and a critical part of every author’s ability to protect and make a living from their work.”
But influencing AI developers is “only one part of the challenge here”, she added. “The race to build the next generation of systems is driven primarily by the profit motives of large corporations. It is opaque, unfettered and unregulated, while the ethical ramifications of AI systems are complex and crying out for scrutiny.”