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A US federal judge has provided the latest answer to the question of whether solely AI-generated art qualifies for copyright protection. According to US District Court Judge Beryl A. Howell, it does not.

As The Hollywood Reporter explained, this is a ruling backing up an earlier finding by the US Copyright Office in the case of inventor Stephen Thaler, who since 2018 has been trying to register an artwork created entirely by his ‘Creativity Machine’ AI. Howell’s ruling backs the Copyright Office’s decision to turn him down.

You can read the ruling here, but here is the important bit. “Copyright has never stretched so far, however, as to protect works generated by new forms of technology operating absent any human guiding hand, as plaintiff urges here,” wrote the judge.

“Human authorship is a bedrock requirement of copyright… The understanding that ‘authorship’ is synonymous with human creation has persisted even as the copyright law has otherwise evolved.”

There is also some fun to be had reading previous rulings referred to by Howell: a book “claimed to embody the words of celestial beings rather than human beings”; letters dictated by “a spirit named Phylos the Thibetan”; a cultivated garden; and the famous selfie-taking crested macaque monkey.

All were ultimately turned down for copyright protection. “Plaintiff can point to no case in which a court has recognized copyright in a work originating with a non-human,” ruled Howell, before acknowledging more complexities to come in the future.

“The increased attenuation of human creativity from the actual generation of the final work will prompt challenging questions regarding how much human input is necessary to qualify the user of an AI system as an ‘author’ of a generated work, the scope of the protection obtained over the resultant image, how to assess the originality of AI-generated works where the systems may have been trained on unknown pre-existing works, how copyright might best be used to incentivize creative works involving AI, and more.”

And not just for images, which were the focus of this case. The ruling will give plenty of food for thought to anyone – musicians, AI startups, collecting societies and more – currently considering what is and isn’t fully ‘AI-generated’ music, and where that sits in our copyright systems.

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