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  • Robert Farago

Fuck Copyright

You can't stop the signal

Jason Allen woke-up with a vision: women in Victorian dresses wearing space helmets. The game designer spooled-up Midjourney and went to work. Some 624 prompts later Théâtre D’opéra Spatial was born.

Allen submitted his digital art – designed to look like an oil painting – to the Colorado State Fair. And won.

Judges Cal Duran and Dagny McKinle didn’t know Théâtre was AI-generated, but they stand by their decision. Duran said they assessed submissions based on "how the art tells a story, how it invokes spirit… I think this piece really did that.”

Allen didn’t fall afoul of the contest’s rules, but his attempt to copyright the finished product did. The U.S. Patent Office told him to take a hike.

Ignoring his post-prompt mods, the Office ruled Allen’s “sole contribution to the Midjourney Image was inputting the text prompt that produced it.”

As I pointed out in How The Government Should Regulate AI, U.S. patent law specifically states that a work must have “traditional elements of authorship” to qualify for protection.

In other words, the work must originate from a human, not a machine.

Originate schmoriginate. Jason Allen reckons AI is a tool for an artist, like any other. Virtually.

Art doesn't create itself, and as much as you might want to will a paintbrush to create a painting for you, it's not going to. is multimodal by nature, which means it requires human interaction in order to function.

Not much and not for long. More to the point, what Jason Allen and the U.S. Copyright Office fail to understand: copyright is dead.

The pervasive ability to reproduce “art” – be it music, writing, painting, photography or other media – undermines if not destroys the business of selling art.

Copyright is a protection racket, drafted long before today’s computerized technology. Those who benefit from the system consider it noble and fair and just: what I make is mine.

But ownership in any business sense comes down to the producer’s ability to control the supply.

When you can’t control supply, you don’t own your product.

Musicians know the score (so to speak). Back in the day, they made their money by controlling the supply of records, tapes and CD’s. With streaming services paying a pittance per play, musicians now make their money via live performance.

A supply-restricted product. That’s diluted via surreptitious recording technology creating “bootleg” audio and video recordings.

Photographers face a similar dilemma. A simple screen cap of one of their images costs a user nothing (unless the “user” is caught profiting from the image).

Visitors to art galleries pay the same price to photograph their favorite works: nothing. Which is nothing compared to entertainment industry “piracy.”

In 2022, the global video games market was worth an estimated $150b. The movie biz racked-up $26b. Copyright theft in both fields cost the U.S. economy (not worldwide) an estimated $29.2b in lost revenue

That’s roughly 20 percent of the global total. And growing, as technology makes data transfer faster, cheaper and more accessible.

Payment for artistic endeavors is moving from a practical, legally enforceable obligation to a moral choice. Hence the arrival of Patreon and Substack, two services where users choose to reward creators, directly, on an individual basis.

It’s a throwback to the old days, when wealthy patrons like Gottfried van Swieten provided financial support for artists, rather than artists earning a percentage of mass market reproduction.

Ownership of art remains a thing, certainly. People will pay for the privilege of owning an original creation. But the existence of cheap reproductions devalues the original (unless you’re in the business of money laundering).

For example (via The Truth About Watches), the Swatch Group’s downmarket versions of their mechanical OMEGA Moonwatch (and tomorrow the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms) destroys the cachet of the original, making it worth less (though not worthless).

The cost of producing high-quality reproductions of just about anything has tumbled. The floodgates are opening, especially when “just about anything” can be reduced to digital information.

With AI, anyone can be a writer, musician or visual artist. “Make me an Elvis version of Baby Got Back by Sir Mix-a-Lot to the tune of Don’t Be Cruel.” Or anything else you can imagine.

How much does that cost? Nada. Sharing it with the world? Niente. Protecting the “new” work from “theft”? Impossible.

As a writer facing this existential threat, I say fuck copyright.

The AI genie’s never going back in the bottle. If someone wants to copy digital work digitally, or create similar work for virtually nothing, have at it.

As much as I’d like to see the business of writing remain remunerative, you can’t stop the signal.

That said, all is not lost.

I reckon some people will pay “extra” for non-AI art – provided they’re guaranteed it was human originated. Exactly why we created Union non-AI certification.

At the moment, the demand isn’t there. But it will be. Meanwhile, we have to take the rough with the smooth.

On one hand, commercial artists are increasingly, inexorably fucked. On the other hand, art has never been more inexpensive or available, to create or enjoy.

Whether it’s any good remains, as always, the most important question.

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