AI Art Part 2: What kind of world do we want?
In the second part of this piece, we will consider the rise of AI-generated art from a more subjective point of view, focusing on its ethical and societal implications. In the first part found here, we went over why AI models do not store and reproduce exact copies of the artworks they have been trained on.
Thank you to 'Yote, who has a PhD in computational biology, for providing feedback and fact-checking for this article.
The backlash against AI art endangers the hope for a world where ideas are shared freely
Stable Diffusion contains unauthorized copies of millions—and possibly billions—of copyrighted images.
-Stable Diffusion Litigation
The second major charge levelled against AI is that it is being trained on copyrighted images, without permission, and that only public domain or explicitly-allowed images should be used as training data. I believe that this is both an unreasonable demand, which is not applied to humans, and harmful to the very artists it claims to protect.
Imagine one's eyes worked like a video camera, recording 60 frames per second, and one were awake for 18 hours a day. That would be almost four million frames per day. Images of people, buildings, cars, animals, trees, the sky, films, paintings and so on. All of them under different lighting conditions and seen from different angles. If one attends a furry convention where artists are drawing, one will often see that they have a second page full of reference pictures from different perspectives. Animators will watch video of whatever it is that they are trying to draw, perhaps they willeven bring in live animals to study how they move in person. These experiences are how we know what the world looks like and form the raw material that artists use to create their art.
But, does anyone believe that those reference images used by human artists are all free of copyright? How many artists search for reference photos of animals and then also check the copyright status of those photos, using only the copyright free ones as references? I would be surprised if even a single one did that. Do we believe that human artists can watch a copyrighted film and not have it influence their own work? I know, personally, that if I've spent time reading a good book, it tends to influence my way of writing and thinking immediately afterwards. Why are we trying to hold AI to a standard to which we do not hold human artists? To a standard that we would find completely ridiculous if applied to human artists?
While I am generally sympathetic to concerns about AI being trained on copyrighted images and then used to generate commercial images, it is important to note the training is not done with the intention of copying any specific image. Instead, it is done with the intention of learning how to draw different concepts. One may copyright a specific drawing of a fox but one can not copyright the concept of a fox.
What would the furry fandom look like if we demanded that people could not learn from or copy the characters and imagery they see in copyrighted material? Are we saying that artists should not draw those images? Every furry artist that has drawn Pokémon, Digimon, My Little Pony, Zootopia, Helluva Boss, How To Train Your Dragon or Puss In Boots fan art has done so using copyrighted materials. Even some artists who have complained about AI using copyrighted works, have themselves drawn art from copyrighted works. I think that is hypocritical.
Fan content necessitates using copyrighted materials and building on them. This is a great way to learn and gain skills! Some people might think that it's not proper art but I would strongly disagree; the over-one-million words of Fallout Equestria: Murky Number Seven rival almost any "original" English literature. There's never been a strong division between fan creations and original works. Lewis Carroll's 1865 novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is great. So was the 1951 Disney animated film adaptation. And the 2000 American McGee's Alice video game. Peter Jackson was a fan of JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings long before he adapted it into an epic trilogy for New Line Cinemas. RJ Palmer got to work on Pokémon: Detective Pikachu because of his Pokemon fan art. Whatever criticisms one may have of its literary value, 50 Shades of Grey was originally Twilight fanfiction. We are meant to build on one another's ideas!
Copyright is important for creators but it needs to be balanced with how it impacts society. Modern day copyright protections have been significantly extended. Originally, in the US, copyright lasted for 14 years with the possibility to extend it by a further 14 years if the author was still alive. Presently, US copyright applies for the lifetime of the author plus an additional 70 years and, due to the influence of powerful companies, notably Disney, corporate copyright extends for 95 years!
I fear that the backlash against AI art threatens creativity, both in the furry fandom and broader society, by normalising even stricter interpretations of copyright. Already, copyright is used to suppress the creativity of fans and artists. In contrast to the RJ Palmer story, I know of several furry artists who received cease and desist letters from Nintendo which forced an end to some amazing comics. The same thing happened to a fan-made hack called Pokemon Prism in 2016. Similarly, a crowdfunded , fan-made Star Trek film was shut down by CBS in 2015. However, importantly, even using public domain materials can get your videos a copyright strike from overzealous algorithms and copyright trolls on Youtube. It has happened to me and it recently happened to popular violin duo TwoSetViolin. This is not copyright being used to increase creativity or to protect creativity; this is copyright weaponized by corporations. Artists lose out. Society loses out.
Not only corporations, but also individual artists can be overly-protective, not only of their own artworks, but even of their own art style. This is crazy to me. Artists have been adopting each others' styles for centuries; Impressionism is essentially a lot of people copying other artists' style. (The name "Impressionism" comes from Claude Monet's Impression, soleil levant, although he was not the sole originator of the style.) Characterising an AI trying to learn a specific art style as art theft is thus not justified, and does not make sense either: Theft requires one to deprived of their property; making a copy or using an artwork in a training set does not deprive the original artist of anything.
Rather than turning to the tools of large corporations to restrict and control, we should aspire to help one another. I see a better role model in the free software community which advocates the four freedoms:
• The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
• The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
• The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help others (freedom 2).
• The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
Many of those freedoms could be adapted for artwork and would allow the use of artwork to train AI models. None of us, artist or otherwise, lives in isolation. We are part of a community and, as members of the furry fandom, an even more close-knit community than many enjoy. We all learn from and are influenced by one another; our ideas were built on the ideas of others and, in turn, we should allow others to build on ours. Anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin made this point well.
Every machine has had the same history — a long record of sleepless nights and of poverty, of disillusions and of joys, of partial improvements discovered by several generations of nameless workers, who have added to the original invention these little nothings, without which the most fertile idea would remain fruitless. More than that: every new invention is a synthesis, the resultant of innumerable inventions which have preceded it in the vast field of mechanics and industry.
Science and industry, knowledge and application, discovery and practical realization leading to new discoveries, cunning of brain and of hand, toil of mind and muscle — all work together. Each discovery, each advance, each increase in the sum of human riches, owes its being to the physical and mental travail of the past and the present.
By what right then can any one whatever appropriate the least morsel of this immense whole and say — This is mine, not yours?
Artists today benefit from centuries of effort by artists who developed the techniques, colour theory and other tools which are still used today. Modern artists draw using computers and tablets which have been built and refined by countless minds. Digital artwork is drawn with software written by others and, when using programmes like GIMP and Krita, running on Linux, which have been shared freely. Those artworks are hosted for free on furry websites, like SoFurry, which are not run commercially but out of love and relying on the donations of their users. Every artwork is a product of a whole community, of a whole society. Can we now point to our artwork and say, "This is mine and you may not benefit from it in the same manner that I have benefited from so many others"?
When it comes down to it, I believe that AI art programs will make it possible for a lot more people (who don't have time to develop advanced art skills) to take their creativity and express it. And that is very much in-line with furry values.
Everyone gets to create.
— Mary E. Lowd (@Ryffnah) August 17, 2022
At this point, I hope to have achieved two things. I hope to have helped readers better understand how AI functions and to have corrected a common misconception about how AI functions. To me, this is important because it is difficult to have a constructive discussion about a technology if we don't understand how it works. Secondly, I hope to have presented a different way of seeing the AI debate and where the world could go. The social effects of AI art are still to be seen but I hope that they are not seen purely as an issue for artists. Instead, I see the AI debate as being one part of a larger discussion about idea sharing which involves issues like free software and open access to scientific results.
AI will change things and, perhaps, some ways of doing things in the past will no longer be viable. We should try to limit the negative effects on people but we must not overlook the positives. As someone who has tried drawing at various points, I respect the skill that artists have spent time and effort to develop, but artists are not the only people who have stories and images in their heads. How many creative talents are currently excluded because they lack the time to gain those skills? For whatever flaws it may have, AI also offers the opportunity for a more inclusive world, where art creation is open to more people and more ideas can be shared. I hope that is where we are headed.