What Do AI and Comics Have in Common: Two Creators Who Have Dedicated Their Copyrightable Works to the Public Domain
A New York Times article recently reported that a respected player in the Artificial Intelligence (“AI”) industry, The Allen Institute, “has begun an ambitious initiative to build a freely available AI alternative to tech giants like Google and start-ups like OpenAI. In an industry process called open source, other researchers will be allowed to scrutinize and use this new system and the data fed into it.”
A separate report in Law360 describes Fables comics creator Bill Willingham’s decision to dedicate his fairy tales-inspired series to the public domain. This decision means others can freely exploit Fables without regard to DC Comics’ publication agreement with him. His decision to do this was driven by his dispute with DC Comics and the cost of resolving it in court. You can read more about Willingham’s story in David Siegel’s blog post here.
The U.S. Copyright Act, together with judicial opinions’ and the Copyright Office’s construction of that law (collectively, the “copyright law”) is intended to benefit creators of original works, but both these situations illustrate its limits. A mission to contribute to the public good obviously drives The Allen Institute as it seeks to prevent already powerful tech companies from monopolizing the AI industry. At the same time, The Allen Institute’s decision is consequential for other reasons: bad actors could exploit open-source AI for devious ends, including hacking and even arms development.
Willingham’s decision is understandable and, like The Allen Institute’s, is colored by a view of the copyright law as favoring monopolies by larger tech companies. If widely followed, however, the approach these parties have taken might, in addition to the public policy repercussions noted above, deprive artists and creators of the ability to make a living from their work. Most people do not have the resources possessed by large companies to effectively exploit and monetize their work (e.g., to make an entertainment production or create and distribute derivative works, including merchandise based on their creations). The decision to forfeit copyright might be an indulgence those who already make a good living can afford, but other creators cannot.
While imperfect, copyright law is a valuable tool that benefits creators and society alike. In this author’s respectful opinion, it should not be lightly cast aside. If you have any legal issues concerning AI or theft of creative works, or concerning branding and trademark enforcement, please do not hesitate to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.