If an AI creates a work of art, should it get the copyright?

A thorny legal issue grows as machines get smarter - and more creative.
Who gets to claim intellectual property rights - and royalties - on machine creativity?

As machines get smarter and smarter, they're not merely outdoing humans in terms of logic and complex thinking -- they're getting creative, too.

From the Next Rembrandt Project, where an AI studied hundreds of Rembrandt paintings and then came up with its own interpretation, to Google's Deep Dream Generator, sophisticated computers are learning to create art.

And this raises a thorny legal question that governments around the world must address: when an artificial intelligence writes a poem, or creates a painting, is it entitled to copyright over its creation?

"Most copyright is based around a person - a human," says Andres Guadamuz, a senior lecturer in intellectual property law at the University of Sussex in England.
Andres Guadamuz (Andres Guadamuz)

And although that "person" may be also be a legal entity such as a corporation, there are currently no laws that allow for an AI to claim copyright on a work it produces.

A recent case in the US highlights the issue: a selfie taken by a macaque monkey, when a photographer left his camera on a tripod unattended.

The animal-rights group PETA challenged the photographer's right to claim royalties for the image, saying they properly belonged to the monkey.

Eventually it was settled out of court. This is because, Andres says, it was unlikely PETA would have any chance of winning the case. Regardless, the photographer now donates a portion of his royalties to an animal welfare group.

Andres says there essentially two options when it comes to assigning copyright to the creations of AIs: give it to the programmer or the  owner of the AI, or put AI-generated art into the public domain.

But doing the latter, he warns, could stifle development of  AI, if investors are unable to get a return from the work the machines produce.

Does Andres think AIs will one day be considered "persons" from a legal standpoint, and be allowed to claim their own intellectual property?

"Now we're entering the realm of science fiction," he says.

The music that plays under Nora's interview with Andres was created by an AI composer called Amper. It's currently free to try: just go to the Amper website, follow the instructions, and you'll have AI-generated music in no time. And, for now at least, there are no copyright restrictions on whatever the machine produces. Have fun!


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