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Does AI Steal Art? What the Debate Tells Us

AI artwork is the latest medium to rock the art world, with critics, experts, collectors, and galleries often at odds with each other, debating things like authenticity, ownership, and copyright. However, this contention isn't anything new, and the entire point of art is often to challenge our perceptions, make us think differently, and embrace societal and cultural changes.

Since Warhol’s soup cans back in 1962, artists and creators have loved to find new ways to capture a moment or reimagine what comprises art–but an AI-generated art search demonstrates how accessible, unusual, and striking digital art can be while requiring only an input phrase and a few minutes to design something unique.

So, is AI art bad for artists, and are algorithms effectively stealing the content they use? Let’s look at both sides of the argument.

How Does AI Create Art?

The first misconception to address is that AI steals art. Yes, an algorithm can scour every digital file in the world to source shapes, images, texture, and colours–for example, if you input ‘Puppy wearing sunglasses,’ it would need to analyse data sets to discover:

  • What a puppy looks like
  • How big should it be compared to the glasses
  • What glasses are and how they are positioned on a face
  • What textures each item has–how fur looks and moves, how sunglasses hinge

What AI doesn't do is simply paste images it has found that match your text prompts. You could reverse-image search an AI artwork, and while there may be similar graphics out there, nothing will be identical. This is because AI does just what we, as humans, would do if we were drawing a picture or painting a scene. We observe, learn, and recreate, using our perceptions to interpret what we know and turn it into a finished design with our choices of colours, shapes, and styles.

The algorithm takes your prompts, explores what they mean, and builds something new, layer by layer, rather than extracting pre-existing graphics and dropping them into a new file. There is a grey area where creators use artists' names in their text prompts, deliberately instructing the AI to copy (if not necessarily steal) a style or artistic flair that may belong to somebody else.

How Does Copyright Work in AI Artwork?

Can AI-generated art be copyrighted? Sometimes! Copyright can only belong to a human; you can't assign copyright legally to AI because it isn't a legal entity. It can't, for example, sue somebody in court for using its work without permission. Therefore, AI can’t own rights to any graphics, imagery, or models it produces.

Any creations you develop using an AI artwork generator belong to you or the platform you are using, depending on your licensing and the nature of your account. The issue of copyright is controversial because several regulatory bodies have outright rejected copyright applications on the basis that the art, or other work, does not belong to anybody. However, laws are also territorial, so you might theoretically be able to copyright something in one country but not another.

In Australia, for example, the Copyright Act 1968 states that copyright could exist if a human used independent intellectual effort in the creation process–which means artists could possibly copyright an AI artwork. Still, the outcome would depend on the level of input.

Last year, the first U.S. copyright was assigned to a graphic novel called Zarya of the Dawn, built with an AI generator, in an unexpected shift from the Copyright Office. This may indicate that a step-change is coming, where authorities increasingly recognise that AI artwork, made with human input, carries ownership rights.

Is AI Artwork Ethical?

Some artists feel that because anybody can create AI-generated artwork without necessarily having any creative skills, it belies the foundation of art. Ethical concerns relate to the theft of original work belonging to somebody else or concealing that an AI generator has been used to create an image.

Most arguments against the ethics of AI artwork are based on fear and misunderstanding rather than the actual mechanisms AI uses. As we explained earlier, AI doesn't stitch together pre-existing images but applies machine learning to create new things.

When used responsibly and with transparency, AI is not dissimilar to human art because it relies on inventiveness, thoughtful prompts, and thematic editing. While critics may uphold a view that AI work is a threat to the conventional art world, it may, in fact, be the positive progression that brings art and creation to the mainstream.

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