The Future of Generative AI May Be Influenced by This Copyright Lawsuit. The use of algorithms to produce text, art, and code is growing quickly, but legal issues could cause a snag.
While the tech sector may be suffering from a wave of layoffs, a shocking cryptocurrency crash, and ongoing turmoil at Twitter, some investors and businesspeople are already anticipating a new boom that will be based on artificial intelligence that can produce compelling text, eye-catching images, and use computer code. But there is a dark cloud over that uncharted territory.
A class-action lawsuit targeting GitHub Copilot, a potent tool that generates working code when a programmer begins to type, was submitted to a federal court in California this month. Because GitHub fails to give credit when Copilot copies open-source code covered by a license requiring it, the coders behind the lawsuit claim that it violates the copyright.
Due to the novel and untested nature of the underlying technology, the lawsuit is still in its early stages and its future is uncertain. However, according to legal experts, it might have an impact on the general trend of generative AI tools. Algorithms were trained on previous human-produced work to create AI programs that produce paintings, photographs, and illustrations from a prompt as well as text for marketing copy.
Visual artists were the first to raise concerns about the legality and ethics of AI that incorporates existing work. Some people who make a living from their visual creativity are irritated that AI art tools trained on their work can then generate new images in the same style. The Recording Industry Association of America, a music industry organization, has indicated that AI-powered music generation and remixing may be a new area of copyright concern.
“What does it mean for these new products to be sucking up the work of these creators in this whole arc that we’re seeing right now—this generative AI space?” says Matthew Butterick, the designer, programmer, and lawyer who filed the GitHub lawsuit.
Copilot is a powerful example of generative AI technology’s creative and commercial potential. GitHub, a Microsoft subsidiary that hosts the code for hundreds of millions of software projects, created the tool. GitHub accomplished this by training an algorithm designed to generate code from AI startup OpenAI on the vast collection of code it stores, resulting in a system that can complete large chunks of code after a programmer makes a few keystrokes. According to a recent GitHub study, when using Copilot as an aid, coders can complete some tasks in less than half the time normally required.
However, as some coders quickly discovered, Copilot will occasionally reproduce recognizable snippets of code plucked from the millions of lines available in public code repositories. Butterick and others filed a lawsuit accusing Microsoft, GitHub, and OpenAI of infringement on copyright because the code does not include the attribution required by the open-source licenses covering that code.
Of course, programmers have always looked at, borrowed from, and studied each other’s code. However, not everyone is certain that it is fair for AI to do the same, particularly if AI can then produce copious amounts of valuable code on its own without adhering to the license requirements of the source material. As a technologist, Butterick declares, “I’m a huge fan of AI.” “All the potential uses for these tools excite me. However, they must treat everyone equally.”
According to Thomas Dohmke, the CEO of GitHub, Copilot now has a feature intended to prevent copying from already existing code. “When you enable this, Copilot will not make the suggestion that matches code published on GitHub—without even considering the license,”
It is unclear if this offers adequate legal protection, and the upcoming court case could have wider ramifications. It will undoubtedly be a landmark case, according to Luis Villa, a former programmer turned attorney who focuses on open-source litigation.
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Villa, who personally knows Nat Friedman, co-founder of GitHub, does not think it is obvious that applications like Copilot are in opposition to the principles of open source and free software. The free software movement in the 1980s and 1990s spoke extensively about weakening copyrights to enable more people to write code, him. “I find it a little frustrating that some people are running around saying we need the most copyright at this point.”