Authors rally against unauthorized use of work by AI companies

July 17, 2023

AI authors

Thousands of authors, including Nora Roberts, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Michael Chabon, and Margaret Atwood, have signed a letter to urge AI companies to stop using their work without permission or payment. 

Alexander Chee, bestselling author of novels like “Edinburgh” and “The Queen of the Night,” said, “There’s no urgent need for AI to write a novel. The only people who might need that are the people who object to paying writers what they’re worth.”

With support from the Author’s Guild, the letter, co-signed by over 8,000 authors, argues that extracting authors’ work from dubious ‘shadow libraries’ and other so-called ‘public’ internet sources that contain illegal copies of their work is unjust and unethical.

The letter was addressed to the leaders of 6 prominent AI companies, including OpenAI, Alphabet, and Meta.

Some shadow libraries contain millions of books and articles and are of immense interest to AI companies despite their debatable legal status. It’s certainly possible that authors’ work is being used for AI training without explicit permission, an issue that is compounded by the fact AI is threatening writers’ jobs. 

A forthcoming report from The Authors Guild reveals that full-time writers’ median income dropped by 42% from 2009 to 2019, at $23,000 last year. AI is considered a significant contributor to this decline. 

Mary Rasenberger, CEO of The Author’s Guild, explained, “It says it’s not fair to use our stuff in your AI without permission or payment. So please start compensating us and talking to us.”

Legal complaints against AI companies are racking up

Rasenberger added that the guild wants an amicable resolution but will otherwise attempt to ramp up legal efforts against AI companies. 

Some authors are already challenging tech companies with lawsuits, including Paul Tremblay, Sarah Silverman, and Mona Awad.

These lawsuits allege that Meta and OpenAI trained their AI models on unauthorized copies of the authors’ works.

Gina Maccoby, a New York-based literary agent, supports these legal actions as a necessary step towards ensuring fair treatment for authors. 

She revealed that agents, herself included, are discussing modifying authors’ contracts to prohibit unauthorized use with publishers. However, she recognizes that enforcing these provisions presents a challenge.

Rasenberger said the Author’s Guild is lobbying for regulation to protect writers, but this remains months or years away in both the US and EU at least, and there’s no guarantee of whether legislation will sufficiently protect creators. 

Responsible AI Fellow at Harvard University, Rumman Chowdhury, said, “Right now there’s a lot of talking about it, but we’re not seeing any concrete legislation or regulation yet coming out.”

Chowdhury envisages a challenging messy path forward, stating, “Some of it will be litigated, some of it will be regulated, and some of it people will literally just have to shout until we’re heard.” 

Of course, AI companies could be proactive and pragmatic about protecting creators, but right now, they’re not being forthcoming with when or how this will happen. 

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Sam Jeans

Sam is a science and technology writer who has worked in various AI startups. When he’s not writing, he can be found reading medical journals or digging through boxes of vinyl records.


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