Under the Copyright Act of 1976, copyright protection “subsists in any original work of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now know or later developed, from which they can be perceived or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.”^ The Act goes on to state that works that may receive copyright protection are not limited to script or printed material but may include “any physical rendering of the fruits of creative intellectual or aesthetic labor.”^
Throughout its history, and despite the Act’s somewhat archaic language, copyright law has proven to be adaptable enough to cover all manner of works created with new and emerging technologies. However, the traditional understanding of copyright law is being challenged by the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) and its ability to produce new creations.
The US District Court for the District of Columbia. recently ruled that works created autonomously by AI are not susceptible of copyright protection. In Thaler v. Perlmutter, Stephen Thaler appealed an administrative decision by the United States Copyright office denying his application to register the copyright for an image generated by an AI program he developed. The court’s decision examined the meaning of what it means to be an “author,” as defined by the Copyright Act and held that only works of human authorship are susceptible of copyright protection under U.S. law.*
The court compared the issue to a case from 1884 that examined whether copyright protection could extend to the then-cutting edge field of photography. In Burrow-Giles Lithographic Co. v. Sarony, it was argued that a photograph should not qualify as a protected work because it was created by a camera. The US Supreme Court disagreed and held that while a camera may generate a “mechanical reproduction” of a scene, it does so only after the photographer develops a “mental conception” of the photograph^^. The court reasoned that the technology used to create the work was immaterial so long as there was human involvement in and creative control over the work.
In a later case, the US Ninth Circuit examined a case in which a crested macaque monkey took a photograph of himself, and various parties attempted to file suit on the monkey’s behalf to confirm copyright protection for the monkey’s photograph.** While the case was decided on standing grounds, the court considered whom the Copyright Act was designed to protect and concluded that the act was designed solely to protect humans.
The Thaler court identified no authority supporting copyright protection in any work originating from a non-human.* However, the issue presented in Thaler was limited to copyright protections for a work created solely by an AI, absent any human input. Therefore, it remains to be seen how courts will address issues related to copyright protection for images that blend human and AI origins.
We stand in a new frontier in both technology and copyright law. As artists and developers increasingly use AI as a tool, the increased distance between human creativity and the final product will present challenging questions regarding how much human input is necessary to afford these creations protection under copyright law.*
^17 U.S.C § 102(a)
* Thaler v. Perlmutter, No. 22-CV-01564-BAH, R. Doc. 24 (Filed 08/18/23).
^^ Burrow-Giles Lithographic Co. v. Sarony, 111 U.S. 53, 59 (1884).
** Naruto v. Slater, 888 F.3d 418 (9th Cir. 2018).