Why AI Companies’ Theft of Art Should Matter to Everyone

Unless you first overthrow capitalism . . . weakening copyrights is counterproductive and only further consolidates wealth and power in the hands of the wealthy and corrupt.

Why AI Companies’ Theft of Art Should Matter to Everyone
“The Devil You Know” (photo by author)

Art is different from other forms of labor in that every artist is the business owner. As such, artists own the intellectual property produced by their small businesses. Allowing artificial intelligence (AI) companies to steal artists’ work to train their product is like allowing Kentucky Fried Chicken to steal the secret recipes of popular local mom and pop restaurants. The essence of the small business (in this case, the artist) is co-opted and corporations are able to capitalize on this and monopolize the market.

Those who argue that artists should just accept this because every job is in danger of being taken over by AI overlook the fact that the vast majority of artists also work in other jobs threatened by AI. We are blue and white collar workers. We work in warehouses, homes, offices, the gig economy—in every industry and at every level—and we sacrifice romance, parenthood, friendship, better-paying jobs, and more in order to pursue our callings as artists. 

The crucial difference, again, is that independent artists own the products of our labor thanks to intellectual property laws, which recognize that every person should have control over work they create using their own imagination and resources. However, like everyone else, in our day jobs, it is the corporations that own the intellectual property rights to anything that is produced as a result of our labor. In our capitalist society, that is the bargain every worker makes in exchange for steady wages and benefits. To the anti-copyrights crowd that imagines itself to be revolutionary and progressive, unless you first overthrow capitalism, weakening the foundation upon which artists, who are mostly poor, make a living—weakening copyrights—is counterproductive and only further consolidates wealth and power in the hands of the wealthy and corrupt.

So if it isn’t already clear to you why the data laundering AI companies like OpenAI/Microsoft, Midjourney, and Stability AI have engaged in should matter to everyone, consider that art is one of the few escapes we all—from the punk rocker waitress to, yes, even the painter CEO—have from being ruled by corporations that would otherwise own everything we create and that would otherwise dictate much more of our lives. If you do not believe this, consider that, according to Gizmodo, Zoom is now able to train AI on user data. (See “Zoom Contradicts Its Own Policy About Training AI on Your Data” by Thomas Germain.) Artists are small business owners, and our rights, including our copyrights, are as fundamental to the American dream—to freedom and progress—as technological innovation.

However, our country and, unfortunately, due to the United States’ outsized influence, the rest of the world, continues to suffer under the illusion that corporations are too big to fail and the interests of everyday people should be secondary—that we are too small to matter. (Paradoxically, when it suits them, such as when it enables Big Tech to lobby and funnel money and data to elected officials, corporations also get to be people.) Elected officials, whether Republican or Democrat, who are lobbied by and invested in AI companies and who, as John Oliver humorously explained in “Data Brokers: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” benefit from being able to buy data (from companies like OpenAI) that it would otherwise be illegal for the government to collect without warrants, will not do what is right without real pushback. Politico’s Steven Overly reports Republican Senator Todd Young of Indiana, who is deeply involved in the(intentionally?) slow-moving effort to craft AI laws, stated that the plan is to (in Overly’s words) “make it about national security.” Apparently, national security will be used as an excuse even when, as in the case of the arts, it is not about national security or even about “democratization.” It is about money and the power of the very few over the many. 

As this situation drags on to the benefit of Big Tech and the plutocracy that is replacing our democracy, I urge all artists and allies to do the following:

  • Unless the Democratic party presents a candidate with integrity who is both anti-war and pro-artists, vote third party. Both major parties, beholden to Big Tech and other corporate interests, have shown that they do not care about the average person. Our current political system facilitates corruption at such a scale that we no longer have democracy and, in fact, live in a plutocracy. We cannot continue to support the lesser evil as it becomes less so. We urgently need a multi-party system to restore democracy and weaken the hold of corporations on our government.
  • If you are an artist, ask yourself this: if a colonizer comes to your country and steals your harvest, should you plant more crops for him? AI generated art is entirely dependent on human artists. Without our original human art, AI generated art would not exist and will face model collapse. This is why OpenAI is licensing the treasure trove that is original human writing from the Associated Press. Do with this information what you will. Not releasing art is a difficult choice, but one that many of us may have to make. This is an open question and discussion the art community needs to have. I do not have an answer for this one, though it’s clear that quality and substance in content will suffer with less and less original human work.
  • Continue to push for artists’ rights to be respected and protected. Artists are demanding:
    1. that our work not be used without our individual consent—without each of us OPTING IN
    2. that we receive credit for our contributions 
    3. that we be fairly compensated (like companies, such as the Associated Press, from whom OpenAI is licensing original human writing untainted by AI that could self-poison its models, human artists deserve to each negotiate the terms of our compensation)
    4. that all work created using AI be labeled as such at the source when it is first generated

Note: This piece was published in August 2023. Minor changes have been made to reflect current realities. The piece was also modified for accuracy on January 22, 2024. For example, after reading Julieta Caldas' excellent piece "Philanthropy Is a Scam," which describes how the wealthy use "donations" to nonprofits to further advance their interests, I decided it made sense to replace "corporatocracy" with "plutocracy."