Leah Schrager, “Mom Life” (2023), original AI-generated artwork by the artist (image courtesy the artist)

It may seem like a stretch for an artist eking out a living to compare themselves to the likes of Taylor Swift or A-listers picketing Hollywood studios, but that is exactly what a coalition led by digital rights group Fight for the Future proposes for the AI Day Of Action against corporate AI profiteering, held today, October 2.

To keep large corporations from gaining copyrights over art made with AI, artists and allies are being called upon to post about the AI Day Of Action on their social media accounts today and to contact their congresspeople using links and scripts provided by Fight for the Future. Artists’ rights over their work have long been contested, yet nothing has brought the conversation to such a head as the advent of generative AI and its potential for corporate exploitation. While creatives from all fields are feeling the squeeze, few are at more risk than independent visual artists who lack funds and unions to fight for their interests.

At the center of the current issue, and the focus of today’s action, is copyright. The term refers to legal ownership of intellectual property and has heretofore applied only to content made by a “human author,” as recently affirmed by a US District Court in Washington, DC. Copyright law has been increasingly important in protecting creatives like visual artists from non-consensual use and replication of their art, which recently came into question when viral generative AI models including DALL-E, Stable Diffusion, and Midjourney hit the internet over the last two years. After their releases, a wave of awe was quickly followed by outrage as many artists suspected, and then confirmed that their art had been used to train AI without their consent. Lawsuits, public comment, and congressional hearings have followed since. One artist, San Francisco-based Karla Ortiz, demonstrated how generative AI can violate the rights of artists and urged representatives to bolster copyright law for creatives, telling the US Senate on August 8, “If left to proliferate, generative AI will make an already difficult living impossible. I genuinely do not see how my industry will survive.” 

Karla Ortiz, “Musa Victoriosa” (2023), another example of artwork that was used by generative AI models without Ortiz’s consent (image courtesy the artist)

The artists organizing AI Day of Action say that in addition to feeding on their work, generative AI presents a tempting opportunity for corporations to save money by manipulating copyright law. Attempting to sidestep the human authorship requirement, corporations are limiting artists’ involvement and compensation to the bare minimum, with an eye to changing copyright law altogether.

Pattern designer and muralist Tanya Heidrich (also known as Stillo Noir) told Hyperallergic in an interview that she can easily envision the ease with which companies could take advantage of artists. “Instead of licensing a pattern from an independent pattern designer, companies may instead pay generative AI companies to license designs their software has created,” Heidrich said. “This runs the risk of further enhancing wealth inequality, with a few companies amassing the profits that were previously shared by thousands of individual artists.” Especially in light of bureaucrats and courts litigating the future of AI, Fight for the Future’s campaign director, Lia Holland, wants artists to be explicitly protected from such a possibility. Holland told Hyperallergic, “We’re eager to see some clarification and correction from Congress when it comes to what copyright is intended to do — promote human creativity, not large corporations hiring and compensating even fewer artists for their labor.”

Beyond the AI Day Of Action, there are other opportunities for artists to have their opinions heard in the lead-up to further AI regulation. The US Copyright Office is requesting comments until Wednesday, October 18, to “help assess whether legislative or regulatory steps in this area are warranted,” and the US Federal Trade Commission is hosting a roundtable on Wednesday, October 4, about the impact of generative AI on creative fields. According to Holland, “With so much interest in regulating AI, now is the time to act and demand change.”

Tanya Heidrich (Stillo Noir) painting “Pride Mural” (2023), an example of design work that the artist’s living as a small business relies on designing and producing (image courtesy the artist)
Karla Ortiz’s oil painting “Rigidum” (2016) is an example of artwork that was used by generative AI models without her permission. Ortiz testified before Congress in August 2023 about the dangers and effects of generative AI. (image courtesy the artist)
Karla Ortiz, “I. Nature” (2015), graphite, another example of artwork that was used by generative AI models without Ortiz’s consent (image courtesy the artist)
Tanya Heidrich (Stillo Noir), mural for Kindred (2022), another work the artist relies on to make a living (image courtesy the artist)

Emma Shapiro is an American artist and activist based in Spain. She is the creator of the international body equality project Exposure Therapy and is the Editor-at-Large for the Don’t Delete Art campaign....

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