The US Copyright Office Clarifies that Copyright Protection Does Not Extend to (Exclusively) AI-Generated Work

The US Copyright Office Clarifies that Copyright Protection Does Not Extend to (Exclusively) AI-Generated Work

Katie Graham is an IPilogue Writer and a 2L JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School

In March 2022, the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (“CIPO”) allowed its first artificial intelligence (AI)-authored copyright registration of a painting co-created by the AI tool, RAGHAV Painting App (“RAGHAV”), and the IP lawyer who created RAGHAV, Ankit Sahni. RAGHAV is the first non-human “author” of a copyrighted work. However, Canadian courts claim that “[c]learly a human author is required to create an original work for copyright purposes” (para 88). Though the AI tool is a co-author with a human, the registration suggests that both RAGHAV and Ankit Sahni can constitute an author under the copyright regime and raises concerns amongst Canadian artists. Though the landscape in Canada is still unclear, the US Copyright Office (“Office”) issued a clarification on March 16, 2023, about its practices for examining and registering works that contain material generated by artificial intelligence (AI) technology.

The Human Authorship Requirement

The Office confirmed that the term “author,” used in both the US Constitution and the Copyright Act, excludes non-humans. To qualify as a work of ‘authorship,’ a work must be created by a human being and works produced by a machine or mere mechanical process that operates randomly or automatically without any creative input or intervention from a human author are not registrable. This threshold reflects the Canadian copyright regime,. The author must contribute significant original expression to the work that is not so trivial to be characterized as a purely mechanical exercise.

The US Copyright Office’s Approach to AI-Generated Work

The Office provided important guidance on assessing the protectable elements of AI-generated works. It begins by distinguishing whether the ‘work’ is one of human authorship, with the AI tool merely being an assisting instrument, or whether the protectable elements of authorship in the work (literary, artistic, or musical expression or elements of selection, arrangement, etc.) were conceived and executed not by man but by a machine.

If the machine produced the expressive elements of the work, it is not copyrightable. This guidance is critical for authorship issues surrounding Chat-GPT, where the AI tool receives a prompt from the user, and the user does not exercise ultimate creative control of the output. The Office provided an example where a user instructs an AI tool to “write a poem about copyright law in the style of William Shakespeare”. Given that the user contributes little to no expressive elements to the AI-generated output, the output is not a product of human authorship or protected under the US Copyright Act.

However, the Office also clarified that, in some cases, AI-generated works might contain sufficient human-authored elements to warrant copyright protection. This may apply in cases where the human selects or arranges the AI-generated elements or modifies the AI-generated material to a degree where it constitutes original expression. The analysis seeks to determine whether a human had ultimate creative control over the expression and formed the traditional elements of authorship.

This guidance is in response to a recent review by the Office of a comic book titled “Zarya of the Dawn” containing human-authored elements combined with AI-generated images. While the Office ruled that the author, Kristina Kashtanova, owned the work’s text and the selection, coordination, and arrangement of the work’s written and visual elements, copyright protection did not extend to the images generated by the AI tool, Midjourney. Though Kashtanova edited the Midjourney images, the Office held that the creativity supplied did not constitute authorship.

How will this apply in Canada?

Given the registration of RAGHAV as an author under Canadian copyright law last year, it remains to be seen whether CIPO will follow a similar assessment as the US Office and revisit the decision to register an AI-generated work as a work of joint authorship. However, academics question whether moral rights, which are not part of the US regime, will extend to AI authors and if AI authorship will alter the copyright term of the last living author’s death plus 70 years. The increasing traction of AI warrants similar guidance from CIPO regarding the status of AI authorship under Canadian copyright law.