Artwork created by artificial intelligence isn’t eligible for copyright protection because it lacks human authorship, a Washington, D.C., federal judge decided Friday.
The ruling is the first in the country to establish a boundary on the legal protections for AI-generated artwork, which has exploded in popularity with the rise of products like OpenAI Inc.’s ChatGPT and DALL-E, Midjourney, and Stable Diffusion.
Howell found that “courts have uniformly declined to recognize copyright in works created absent any human involvement,” citing cases where copyright protection was denied for celestial beings, a cultivated garden, and a monkey who took a selfie.
“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 judge wrote.
The rise of generative AI will “prompt challenging questions” about how much human input into an AI program is necessary to qualify for copyright protection, Howell said, as well as how to assess the originality of AI-generated art that comes from systems trained on existing copyrighted works.
But this case “is not nearly so complex” because Thaler admitted in his application that he played no role in creating the work, Howell said.
Thaler, the president and CEO of Imagination Engines, sued the office in June 2022 following its denial of his application to register the AI-generated art piece titled “A Recent Entrance to Paradise.”
His attorney, Ryan Abbott of Brown Neri Smith & Khan LLP, said he plans to appeal the judgment. “We respectfully disagree with the court’s interpretation of the Copyright Act,” Abbott said.
The Copyright Office said in a statement that it believes the court reached the correct result and the office is reviewing the decision.
The office recently issued guidance on the copyrightability of works created with the assistance of AI, which attorneys said introduced additional murkiness in the AI authorship debate.
The Copyright Office in February granted a limited copyright registration for an AI-assisted graphic novel, which attorneys said could crack the door open further to protect such works.
Thaler’s motion for summary judgment, which Howell denied in the Friday order, argued that permitting AI to be listed as an author on copyrighted works would incentivize more creation, which is in line with copyright law’s purpose of promoting useful art for the public.
“Denying copyright to AI-created works would thus go against the well-worn principle that ‘[c]opyright protection extends to all ‘original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium’ of expression,” Thaler argued in his motion.
Register of Copyrights Shira Perlmutter, who leads the office, defended the office’s decision to reject Thaler’s application on the grounds that it wasn’t created by a human.
“The Office’s conclusion that copyright law does not protect non-human creators was a sound and reasoned interpretation of the applicable law,” the agency wrote in its cross-motion for summary judgment, which Howell granted Friday.
The Department of Justice represents the Copyright Office.
The case is Thaler v. Perlmutter, D.D.C., No. 1:22-cv-01564, ordered 8/18/23.