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Federal Judge Rules AI Incapable of Holding Copyrights

A federal judge declared that artificial intelligence (AI) could not hold copyrights for its creations for work entirely generated without human input.

In a significant ruling, a federal judge declared that artificial intelligence (AI) lacks the capacity to hold copyrights for its creations. Judge Beryl A. Howell of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia upheld the U.S. Copyright Office's decision to deny copyright protection to a work entirely generated without human input. This judgment is expected to serve as a pivotal reference point for future legal battles, exploring the boundaries of intellectual property law in relation to AI.

Computer scientist Stephen Thaler sought copyright protection for a visual artwork titled "A Recent Entrance to Paradise." The artwork was produced using Thaler's computer system known as the "Creativity Machine," and he intended to transfer the copyright from the AI to himself.

This case drew national attention due to the growing popularity of AI systems like DALL-E2 and Midjourney, which enable users to effortlessly create images and artistic works.

Judge Howell's ruling hinged on the concept that human authorship is a fundamental prerequisite for copyright protection, reaffirming the Copyright Office's guidance. Given that the AI-generated artwork was ineligible for copyright protection, Howell concluded that debating the transfer of such a copyright was moot.

The U.S. Copyright Office is currently "reviewing the decision" in the Thaler case and expressed belief in the court's accurate judgment. Thaler's legal representatives did not provide any response to requests for comments.

James Grimmelmann, a professor of digital and information law at Cornell Law School, asserted that the ruling "alters absolutely nothing" as the status quo dictates that AI-generated works are not copyrightable. Grimmelmann highlighted that Thaler's pursuit of AI as an author led him to exclude himself from arguing that his contributions warranted copyright protection.

Thaler had previously attempted to challenge intellectual property regulations to acknowledge AI-generated innovations. However, in April, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Thaler's case against the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's refusal to grant patents for inventions attributed to his AI system "DABUS." In a separate endeavor, Thaler had also contested to obtain patents for his AI-invention system in 18 jurisdictions worldwide.

Despite this ruling, several broader questions regarding copyright protections for AI-generated artworks remain unresolved. One key issue addressed by Judge Howell is the degree of human involvement necessary to qualify the user of an AI system as the "author" of the generated work. Howell acknowledged that the incorporation of AI into artists' creative processes introduces novel challenges to copyright law.

Grimmelmann pointed to another ongoing case involving artist Kris Kashtanova, who collaborates with legal experts at Morrison Foerster. They are working on a book featuring illustrations based on drawings by Kashtanova but executed by AI. This case could offer insights into the extent of human authorship required for copyright registration. Kashtanova initiated this project after the Copyright Office revoked a copyright for a graphic novel co-created with the AI tool Midjourney.