Friday, July 7, 2023

AI Rights

The cultural troposphere echoed to the smug cheers of the We Hate The Future crowd earlier in the week, when Valve supposedly banned anything smelling of AI from Steam. At the time, the market-leading publishing platform hadn't made a statement of any kind on the topic but a developer, whose game had been rejected for using AI assets, took to reddit to make the case that an unannounced ban was operating behind a cover of silence.

I read the rejection notice and the import seemed clear: unless you own the IP rights and can prove it, Steam's not taking the fall for you. It seemed obvious Valve weren't taking any kind of stand against automation per se. It was just the usual line-toeing over copyright; hardly surprising, given the potential for litigation and the outrageous costs involved.

Nevertheless, the non-event was widely and misleadingly reported as "Valve All But Bans Steam Games From Using AI-Generated Content" and variations thereof to the point where, by way of a statement given to Eurogamer, Valve eventually felt the need to make their already clear position positively crystalline. 

Among other things, the interview hearteningly confirmed 

"We know it is a constantly evolving tech, and our goal is not to discourage the use of it on Steam.

The statement makes it abundantly clear the issue lies with copyright and intellectual property rights, not any ideological opposition to the generative process itself, something they expect to evolve and change as the technology ages: 

"Stated plainly, our review process is a reflection of current copyright law and policies, not an added layer of our opinion. As these laws and policies evolve over time, so will our process.

The statement concluded by confirming that "developers can use these AI technologies in their work with appropriate commercial licences" but that they "can not infringe on existing copyrights". Valve also asserted that until the whole thing settles down, they'll be happy to issue refunds to developers whose games are rejected for using AI assets of uncertain provenance.

In a similar test of mettle, Unity doubled down on their commitment to a shiny, happy future under our serene AI overlords. The game engine giant's CEO, John Riccatiello, expressed the belief that while "Some companies will try to make the same game with less to save money, other companies are going to try to make a better game with the same or more".

By "more", he means AI tools such as Unity's Muse and Sentis, the former "a ChatGPT-style bot"
within the Unity engine that can produce "usable artwork and programming code" from a text input, the latter allowing the insertion of generative AI "directly into games." 

Prior to this, the peanut gallery had been hurling shells in Unity's direction following the removal of partner-company Atlas from the Unity Asset Store when it emerged that Ajax didn't necessarily have the rights to the AI-created assets it was providing. The other nine AI-providing partners, however, remain in place. For now.

Meanwhile, Unity plans to train its AIs on work it already owns or licenses, which seems the obvious solution for very large corporations. I've worked for a couple of those in my time and there was always a clause in my contract of employment claiming ownership of anything I did at work, whether or not it was something I'd been asked to do or had anything to do with my job. It's not like signing away your rights for a wage is a new thing...

As Ricciatiello says, "it's going to take a couple of years for this wobbly bicycle to not feel like it's so wobbly". It should be obvious to all by now that we're currently in the wild west era of so-called AI. It's a phase that all new technologies enjoy, sometimes briefly, sometimes for quite a while, before legislative and regulatory authorities bring themselves up to speed and attempt to take control. 

In the case of AI, taking control may prove somewhat more of a challenge than usual. As Janelle Shane of AI Weirdness points out, telling the difference between work created by humans and AIs isn't always as straightforward as you might imagine. Set a thief to catch a thief, as the old adage goes, appears to be a principle that doesn't apply to lightfingered AIs.

If she's right, and it's pretty plain she is, then the process of image-matching can't reasonably be handed over to the usual algorithms. It's going to be a lot of work for someone, going through the entirety of the worldwide web with a magnifying glass.

And it will require an exact match. Without going back to the legislative well again, you can't prosecute someone for copying a style or an idea, either visual or written. You have to steal their actual words and images.

The grey area seems to be the way the AIs were trained, which allegedly involved simply downloading the entire worldwide web without asking anyone if it was okay. The argument is the whole lot was ripped off right at the start so any use of any of it now is de facto trading in stolen goods. 

Added to that, the the current output of most AIs ressembles bits of pre-existing work sloppily glued together, so working out who owns the rights to the individual pixels might be a problem. If it takes the courts months to decide if one three minute pop song sounds too much like another, good luck with proving which of a gazillion pictures was the source for something that looks like a crayon sketch of a six-year old's nightmare.

It's all good fun until someone loses their job, as the saying goes. Or their house, after the lawyers' fees come in. It makes me nervous about using AI-generated images here, if I'm honest, although that's mostly because I'm morbidly risk-averse.

It's easy to think these things will never affect you directly but I was disturbed to read that the RIAA had demanded Discord release a complete list of members of the AIWorld channel. I'm on there! I haven't actually used it to make anything because it wouldn't let me but still...

For now, I think I'll still use AI illustrations on the blog. I just love them. They look amazing. 

They also used to look like nothing any self-respecting artist would want to put their name to, let alone legislate over, but the stuff I'm getting from NightCafe is starting to make me twitchy. You do feel some of those have to be lifted from somewhere...

My plans for my own AI covers channel on YouTube are going to have to stay on hold, though. Just as well. It looked like far too much work anyway. 

What even is the point of AI, if it doesn't do eveything for you?


  1. The argument will resolve itself quite nicely as software becomes freely and widely available that runs on modest home PCs and adapts existing models built from the web nicely to improve their quality. It's already on the way. Any attempts to "crack down and protect creators' rights" are just spitting into the wind at this point.

    The giants of the music industry will be the next to find out how much fun it is to try to "crack down and protect creators' rights" in the face of software that can run in private in someone's home and produce commercial-quality output. They've run their copyright cabal for decades on the back of owning the whole production and distribution network: it ain't a thing anymore. Someday soon we will mark the death of Clear Channel Radio as the beginning of the end of Big Music.

    Next up: preventing children from playing violent video games. Enough legislation should do it, right? Right?

    1. If I could 5* a comment this would get it. I really hate sounding like an old punk but we kinda did fight this war a long time ago and thought we'd won but the music industry is like the villain in a horror movie; you can kill it as many times as you like but it just won't stay dead.

      It applies to publishing, too, and the fundemental reason the ultra-big companies just keep on wining - apart from them having all the money - is that most supposedly creative artists, writers and musicians want to be famous first, rich second and everything else waaaaaaaaaay in the back of those two. All of the means of production passed into the hands of individuals years ago but very, very few creators prefer to keep doing all the work themselves for a small audience when they could let someone else do 90% of it for them and sell the results to millions. Whether this revolution will change that I kind of doubt but at least it will open the door for a whole new set of people - those who have ideas but don't have the traditional talents to realize them.


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