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AI is not human YET so they cannot hold copyrights!

Posted by Steve Vondran | Dec 01, 2023

Vondran Legal® AI Copyright Law - 2023 Legal Updates - If you need help with a AI copyright issue, NFT copyright, or other copyright infringement matter, contact us at (877) 276-5084.

legal case dealing with AI copyright


With the EXPLOSION of AI tools that can generate and manipulate text, music, imagery, video and more, people are now starting to expand their creative presence by creating new Generative AI works for authorship, things that normally humans, such as artists, photographers, illustrators, cartoonist and others have routinely registered for, and received copyright registration status with the United State Copyright Office ("USCO").  However, now people are pushing the digital envelope and seeking to register works created by AI.  The courts, thus far, are not going along for the ride.  AI is not a "human" and cannot currently register copyrights of their outputs.  Here is one such case discussing this.

Background Facts

Plaintiff Stephen Thaler owns a computer system he calls the “Creativity Machine,” which he claims generated a piece of visual art of its own accord. He sought to register the work for a copyright, listing the computer system as the author and explaining that the copyright should transfer to him as the owner of the machine. The Copyright Office denied the application on the grounds that the work lacked human authorship, a prerequisite for a valid copyright to issue, in the view of the Register of Copyrights. Plaintiff challenged that denial, culminating in this lawsuit against the United States Copyright Office and Shira Perlmutter, in her official capacity as the Register of Copyrights and the Director of the United States Copyright Office (“defendants”). Both parties have now moved for summary judgment, which motions present the sole issue of whether a work generated entirely by an artificial system absent human involvement should be eligible for copyright.

AI artwork

Courts Holding

Here is what the District of Columbia Court had to say:

The understanding that “authorship” is synonymous with human creation has persisted even as the copyright law has otherwise evolved. The immediate precursor to the modern copyright law—the Copyright Act of 1909—explicitly provided that only a “person” could “secure copyright for his work” under the Act. Act of Mar. 4, 1909, ch. 320, §§ 9, 10, 35 Stat. 1075, 1077. Copyright under the 1909 Act was thus unambiguously limited to the works of human creators.

There is absolutely no indication that Congress intended to effect any change to this longstanding requirement with the modern incarnation of the copyright law. To the contrary, the relevant congressional report indicates that in enacting the 1976 Act, Congress intended to incorporate the “original work of authorship” standard “without change” from the previous 1909 Act. See H.R. REP. NO. 94-1476, at 51 (1976).

The human authorship requirement has also been consistently recognized by the Supreme Court when called upon to interpret the copyright law. As already noted, in Sarony, the Court's recognition of the copyrightability of a photograph rested on the fact that the human creator, not the camera, conceived of and designed the image and then used the camera to capture the image. See Sarony, 111 U.S. at 60. The photograph was “the product of [the photographer's] intellectual invention,” and given “the nature of authorship,” was deemed “an original work of art . . . of which [the photographer] is the author.” Id. at 60–61.

Similarly, in Mazer v. Stein, the Court delineated a prerequisite for copyrightability to be that a work “must be original, that is, the author's tangible expression of his ideas.” 347 U.S. 201, 214 (1954).

Goldstein v. California, too, defines “author” as “an ‘originator,' ‘he to whom anything owes its origin,'” 412 U.S. at 561 (quoting Sarony, 111 U.S. at 58). In all these cases, authorship centers on acts of human creativity. Accordingly, courts have uniformly declined to recognize copyright in works created absent any human involvement, even when, for example, the claimed author was divine.

The Ninth Circuit, when confronted with a book “claimed to embody the words of celestial beings rather than human beings,” concluded that “some element of human creativity must have occurred in order for the Book to be copyrightable,” for “it is not creations of divine beings that the copyright laws were intended to protect.” Urantia Found. v. Kristen Maaherra, 114 F.3d 955, 958–59 (9th Cir. 1997) (finding that because the “members of the Contact Commission chose and formulated the specific questions asked” of the celestial beings, and then “select[ed] and arrange[d]” the resultant “revelations,” the Urantia Book was “at least partially the product of human creativity” and thus protected by copyright);.

See also Penguin Books U.S.A., Inc. v. New Christian Church of Full Endeavor, 96-cv-4126 (RWS), 2000 WL 1028634, at *2, 10–11 (S.D.N.Y. July 25, 2000) (finding a valid copyright where a woman had “filled nearly thirty stenographic notebooks with words she believed were dictated to her” by a “‘Voice' which would speak to her whenever she was prepared to listen,” and who had worked with two human co-collaborators to revise and edit those notes into a book, a process which involved enough creativity to support human authorship); Oliver v. St. Germain Found., 41 F. Supp. 296, 297, 299 (S.D. Cal. 1941) (finding no copyright infringement where plaintiff claimed to have transcribed “letters” dictated to him by a spirit named Phylos the Thibetan, and defendant copied the same “spiritual world messages for recordation and use by the living” but was not charged with infringing plaintiff's “style or arrangement” of those messages).

Similarly, in Kelley v. Chicago Park District, the Seventh Circuit refused to “recognize copyright” in a cultivated garden, as doing so would “press too hard on the basic principle” that “[a]uthors of copyrightable works must be human.” 635 F.3d 290, 304–06 (7th Cir. 2011). The garden “ow[ed] [its] form to the forces of nature,” even if a human had originated the plan for the “initial arrangement of the plants,” and as such lay outside the bounds of copyright. Id. at 304.

Finally, in Naruto v. Slater, the Ninth Circuit held that a crested macaque could not sue under the Copyright Act for the alleged infringement of photographs this monkey had taken of himself, for “all animals, since they are not human” lacked statutory standing under the Act. 888 F.3d 418, 420 (9th Cir. 2018). While resolving the case on standing grounds, rather than the copyrightability of the monkey's work, the Naruto Court nonetheless had to consider whom the Copyright Act was designed to protect and, as with those courts confronted with the nature of authorship, concluded that only humans had standing, explaining that the terms used to describe who has rights under the Act, like “‘children,' ‘grandchildren,' ‘legitimate,' ‘widow,' and ‘widower[,]' all imply humanity and necessarily exclude animals.” Id. at 426. Plaintiff can point to no case in which a court has recognized copyright in a work originating with a non-human.

Undoubtedly, we are approaching new frontiers in copyright as artists put AI in their toolbox to be used in the generation of new visual and other artistic works. 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.

This case, however, is not nearly so complex. While plaintiff attempts to transform the issue presented here, by asserting new facts that he “provided instructions and directed his AI to create the Work,” that “the AI is entirely controlled by [him],” and that “the AI only operates at [his] direction,” —implying that he played a controlling role in generating the work—these statements directly contradict the administrative record.

Here, plaintiff informed the Register that the work was “[c]reated autonomously by machine,” and that his claim to the copyright was only based on the fact of his “[o]wnership of the machine.” The Register therefore made her decision based on the fact the application presented that plaintiff played no role in using the AI to generate the work, which plaintiff never attempted to correct.

In the absence of any human involvement in the creation of the work, the clear and straightforward answer is the one given by the Register: No. Given that the work at issue did not give rise to a valid copyright upon its creation, plaintiff's myriad theories for how ownership of such a copyright could have passed to him need not be further addressed. Common law doctrines of property transfer cannot be implicated where no property right exists to transfer in the first instance. The work-for-hire provisions of the Copyright Act, too, presuppose that an interest exists to be claimed. See 17 U.S.C § 201(b) (“In the case of a work made for hire, the employer . . . owns all of the rights comprised in the copyright.”).

Here, the image autonomously generated by plaintiff's computer system was never eligible for copyright, so none of the doctrines invoked by plaintiff conjure up a copyright over which ownership may be claimed.

Work-for-hire legal argument shot down in flames

Click here to watch our video about Work-for-hire requirements.

FOOTNOTE:  In any event, plaintiff's attempts to cast the work as a work-for-hire must fail as both definitions of a “work made for hire” available under the Copyright Act require that the individual who prepares the work is a human being. The first definition provides that “a ‘work made for hire' is . . . a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment,” while the second qualifies certain eligible works “if the parties expressly agree in a written instrument signed by them that the work shall be considered a work made for hire.” 17 U.S.C. § 101 (emphasis added). The use of personal pronouns in the first definition clearly contemplates only human beings as eligible “employees,” while the second necessitates a meeting of the minds and exchange of signatures in a valid contract not possible with a non-human entity.

For the foregoing reasons, defendants are correct that the Copyright Office acted properly in denying copyright registration for a work created absent any human involvement. Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is therefore denied and defendants' cross-motion for summary judgment is granted.

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Steve Vondran

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