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(Probably not) the end of the world - AI and copyright infringement

24th Apr 2023 | Commercial Law | Data Protection & Information Law
Magnifying glass looking at Chat GPT wording and symbols on a pink background

Anyone who has ever asked ‘Alexa’ to add something to the shopping list and, in response, been informed of current weather conditions in Buenos Aires could be forgiven for being sceptical about claims that AI will soon take over the world.

However, OpenAI's artificial intelligence software programme, ChatGPT, has been the subject of recent headlines which have sent many people spiralling, envisioning a bleak, post-apocalyptic landscape where AI has taken over and humans are left scrabbling about in the dark, using sharpened sticks to hunt pigeons for food.

But, since I don’t own a tin-foil hat, I’ll leave commenting on the likelihood of ChatGPT bringing about the end of civilisation to others.  

Potential extinction events aside, the use of AI like ChatGPT does raise numerous questions from a legal perspective, one of them being:

Who owns the intellectual property in the content that ChatGPT ‘creates’? 

What actually is ChatGPT?

ChatGPT is a conversational AI tool you can access online that uses natural language processing to generate responses. It can perform a variety of tasks, including answering factual questions, generating essays, and completing prompts. Users simply type a prompt asking it to write a story, draft a document, or even generate articles such as this one (that last bit is a joke). 

How is ChatGPT different to what has come before?

Put simply; it isn’t. It's just better at it.

ChatGPT combines a ‘chatbot’ (a computer program which cannot ‘learn’ and is designed to simulate conversation with human users) and GPT-3 (a language model that uses deep learning to produce human-like text). A combination of supervised learning and reinforcement learning is used, which means human feedback is part of the training loop to help minimise errors or biased responses. 

The result is an AI tool which not only responds to prompts in a human-like manner, but which also seems to understand what is being asked of it, including the content and context of the query or instruction. And the technology behind it is continuously learning and improving; OpenAI has already announced GPT-4 which it claims “surpasses ChatGPT in its advanced reasoning capabilities”.

Ultimately, you can use ChatGPT to create precise, detailed, and coherent content for you, which, in many cases, will seem like a human has done it (only it took a fraction of the time). This could be a degree-level essay on feminist criticism of the works of Virginia Woolf, or it could be a joke about complimentary peanuts; the world is your oyster.

It is also worth pointing out that, in some cases, ChatGPT has reportedly produced inaccurate and/or biased results and, occasionally, falsely accused Australian mayors of bribery. You have been warned. 

But who owns the content that it creates? 

Copyright in the UK protects the form of the expression of an idea but not the idea itself.

For example, if you have an idea for a novel, that idea will not be protected by copyright, but the text you produce will. You can even use the little © if you like.

Copyright does what it says on the tin. It gives authors of original works the right to protect their work from being copied, and it applies automatically to original literary, dramatic, musical, or artistic works, as well as sound recordings, films, broadcasts, and typographical arrangements on creation. It also applies to original non-literary work, such as software, web content and databases. Unless an exception applies, no one else can use or copy the original work without the copyright owner’s permission. 

However, copyright does not provide the author with a monopoly and will not protect against the creation of similar or even identical work if it has not been copied.

So, what about an AI tool trained using enormous amounts of copyrighted text that it then uses to generate its own work? Could it be argued that AI infringes the copyright in those texts when doing so? Or is it simply using those texts as inspiration to create original work?

Under its terms and conditions, ChatGPT assigns (i.e. transfers) ownership of the output generated by it to the user (i.e. you). This means you will own the content ChatGPT creates for you. However, it also makes it clear that you are responsible for ensuring the content does not violate any applicable laws. In other words, if the content ChatGPT creates for you does inadvertently infringe a third party’s copyright, then that is your problem.

Should you exercise caution?

So, while ChatGPT may be fun (unless you’re an Australian mayor) and even useful for performing some personal or internal business tasks (it can carry out market research and plan your wedding), you should be cautious. Be careful using AI generators such as ChatGPT to create content you plan on exploiting commercially if you don’t want to risk being on the receiving end of copyright infringement proceedings.

Does ChatGPT spell the end of the world as we know it? Probably not.

Does it write good jokes? You tell me:

A joke by ChatGPT

“A man walks into a bar and orders a drink. After a few minutes, he hears a small voice say, "Nice shirt." He looks around but doesn't see anyone talking to him, so he goes back to his drink.

A few minutes later, he hears the voice again, "I like your shoes." He looks around but still doesn't see anyone nearby who could be speaking to him.

Feeling a bit spooked, he calls the bartender over and asks if he's heard the strange voice. The bartender nods and says, "Oh, that's just the peanuts. They're complimentary.”

For more information on the issues in this article or any other copyright or intellectual property query, please get in touch with Tom Justice (a human) on 0191 211 7913 or email [email protected].

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