Big Ben, London

Debate is heating up again in the UK over whether AI developers should be given an ‘exemption’ to enable them to train their models on copyrighted content without licensing deals.

The prospect reared its head last year, but was then shelved by the British government early in 2023, cheered on by the music industry which had been dead against any such exemption.

Now the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee – the same group of politicians that held inquiries into music-streaming economics and misogyny in the music – has published a report focusing on AI’s implications for the creative industries.

It comes out against a training exemption, but highlights issues for smaller AI startups who want to properly license this material.

“We recommend that the Government does not pursue plans for a broad text and data mining exemption to copyright,” was how the report put it.

“Instead, the Government should proactively support small AI developers in particular, who may find difficulties in acquiring licences, by reviewing how licensing schemes can be introduced for technical material and how mutually-beneficial arrangements can be struck with rights management organisations and creative industries trade bodies.”

Initial responses from music industry bodies have focused on the first part of that. “We welcome the Select Committee’s call to government to be steadfast in its commitment to human artistry as AI develops,” said BPI boss Dr Jo Twist.

What’s just as important to discuss, however, is the second part of that recommendation by the DCMS committee: licensing schemes for smaller AI startups and developers.

It’s not a new challenge: there have been numerous attempts to launch music-licensing ‘sandboxes’ for startups down the years, and few have had a lasting impact.

Sometimes publishing rights have been the snag; other times a key evangelist for the project has moved on and momentum has ebbed away.

Some have been badly designed, others poorly promoted… Basically the music industry has been good at talking up licensing sandboxes, but often less impressive at making them work.

But the DCMS report raises the prospect that if rightsholders want strict rules on AI training and copyrighted material, coming up with some meaningful new twists on the sandbox model, with AI developers in mind, could bolster their case.

In separate but related news, the boss of umbrella industry body UK Music is stepping down. Jamie Njoku-Goodwin is leaving to become the UK Prime Minister’s new director of strategy.

In theory, that’s good news for the music industry. Under Njoku-Goodwin, UK Music published a position paper on AI setting out the industry’s desired principles for the government to adopt.

Now he’ll be truly in the thick of it as the government decides its next moves on AI – including whether to take up the DCMS committee’s recommendations.

In practice… Well, there’s no guarantee that when someone moves from an industry body into politics, they’ll take all their previous lobbying views with them. Plus, Njoku-Goodwin may be at the heart of government, but it’s doubtful he’ll be there for long.

The UK’s next general election has to be held no later than 28 January 2025, but is expected to happen sometime in 2024.

The current Conservative government is floundering in the polls, and is highly likely to be booted out of office when voters have their say. Crafting meaningful legislation on AI, copyright and the creative industries may take more time.

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