Is Copyright Now Under Threat From A.I. Machine Learning?

The creative thoughts of a young girl are augmented by the circuitry of an AI neural network.
Neural Network (2023)

Is Copyright Now Under Threat From A.I. Machine Learning?

The emergence of machine learning has given many illustrators and visual artists cause for concern. The techlash has been especially pronounced where artwork is used by A.I. companies to train image making models. This also marks a turn for illustration markets which can now potentially be serviced by A.I. generators.

Unlike the availability of creative software, A.I. does not remove barriers to entry, it removes the need for practical expertise. Text and Data Mining is essential for A.I. development, and governments have granted copyright exceptions to make those inputs available. As a result, text-to-image generators like Stable Diffusion, Midjourney, and DALL·E, are being trained using copyrighted images harvested from the internet.

The Fallout from Machine Learning Outputs

The likelihood is that the A.I. generated outputs are where most first encounter this emergent technology. Though not protectable by copyright, an illustrator’s style is often a crucial part of their stock-in-trade, which has been made easier to coopt with little recourse. The difficulty of enforcement is partly why has been developed by digital artists Matt Dryhurst and Holly Herndon. Rather than react via copyright warnings and takedowns, this digital service allows artists to opt in or out of datasets used in A.I. training.

From a legal perspective, if author attribution can be reassigned by this technology, the bearing on copyright ownership is significant. Litigation involving entertainment companies repeatedly shows us how copyright can be weaponised.

First, can you copyright the output of a generative AI model, and if so, who owns it? Second, if you own the copyright to the input used to train an AI, does that give you any legal claim over the model or the content it creates?

Andres Guadamuz speaking with James Vincent – The Verge

Unsurprisingly the Society of Illustrators has disallowed A.I. work from their annual competitions. Their rationale is that A.I. has been trained using copyrighted images, which they view as “the cornerstone of the illustration community.” Similarly, the Association of Illustration has urged the Intellectual Property Office to reconsider the copyright exception granted for A.I. training.

This exception would mean that creators and rights holders of images would not be able to prevent their work from being scraped for data unless it was protected behind a paywall, which clearly would not be practical for image makers who want potential commissioners to see their work in the easiest way possible (or stock libraries who want to licence images).

The Association of Illustration

Platforms Abetting Machine Learning

Though authorial works are protected by copyright, when original content is published to an online platform those rights can be held hostage. Artist gallery platforms Artstation and DeviantArt have drawn the ire of their user-base for permitting image scraping. The community reaction has led to them introducing opt-in ‘No-AI’ tags, preventing content being used to develop A.I. generators. Meanwhile, A.I. generated images have become viral on social media.

Are A.I. Generated Images the New Stockart

Much concern related to A.I. generated images is around the erosion of illustration’s market value. Once prompted, an image generator can render countless images, making the task one of curation and adjustment. It is disheartening that a person’s creations can be used to undermine the viability of markets for that very work. Author and art journalist Zachary Small writes in Artnet;

Recent developments in machine-learning programs have turned A.I. into an impressive artistic tool capable of outpacing—and underpricing—human artists, touching off an earthquake in creative circles. Anxieties are highest among graphic artists and commercial illustrators whose livelihood is connected to their ability to turn out content to clients’ specification.

Zachary Small – Artnet

The notion that A.I. is a technological tool frames its comparison with other historical technologies. Engravers were made redundant electrotype plates, and illustrators gradually lost the advertising market because of advancements in photography. But the execution of artwork has always been pegged to human authorial intent, which is not the case with A.I. Conceptual artists can often provide a reasonable argument for the superordiante role of creative authorship. But as conceptualism has shown, this does not bode well for human craftsmanship, nor the autographic works of hand and mind working as one.

The Un-new Truths of Our Derivative Culture

In spite of how societies glorify creativity, derivative works are much the norm in our post-digital culture. This coupled with algorithmic bias means little of what we encounter is truly original. Be this as it may, published content once had to be made by people. As emphasised by the AOI, an illustrator’s contribution is not merely the image creation, but also suggesting ideas and exploring a brief to bring about best results. Though cases of progressive work using A.I. are likely, one can imagine how generators trained on chirographic man-made images shall mostly amplify the dominance of derivate images.

Might Legislation Catchup to A.I.

The intersection between A.I. and copyright law is rapidly evolving, and is where many expect to see landmark cases in the coming months. The use of A.I. does recast the role of authorship, and often makes a claim for copyright protection less accessible. However, in spite of its shortfalls, copyright law may be one of the best available deterrents against A.I. enabled plagiarism. The stakes are high. If the cultural products we consume are A.I. generated, the potential for controlling human perception may become centralised in a way that won’t be easily unspun.

NFT Digest: The Mainstream Finally Caught Up With Crypto Art

An infantry soldier with a warped combat helmet becomes the subject of a paper craft cutting
Toy Soldier (2021)

NFT Digest: The Mainstream Finally Caught Up With Crypto Art

The perceived value of NFTs is they can prove ownership and provenance of a digital asset. This carries implications not only for collectables, but also limited, and unique works. Importantly, this does not restrict public access to the asset. Rather it certifies it for sale on primary and secondary markets. This has meant recognition and reward for digital artefacts, spurred curation on NFT platforms, and trading in NFT marketplaces.

To mint an NFT means the underlying digital asset is recorded onto a blockchain; an immutable, add-only, distributed ledger. Minting does not prevent asset copying, which many argue increases exposure, and consequently, the market value of the minted asset. However, unauthorised minting is a pressing concern for many. Fraudulent asset sales diminishes the legitimate income of artists, and undermines trust in the broader NFT market. In the event that disputes do arise, recourse is certainly not helped by the absence of legislation dealing with the specifics of NFT creation and trading.

The implications of putting assets ‘on-chain’ are ostensibly far reaching, and the interest among those making native-digital products is entirely understandable. The artwork ‘original’ bares little significance when the output is a software file rather than a painted canvas. Moreover, barriers to physical reproduction are irrelevant on a computer, where file copying is central to how operating systems work.

Eye on the NFT Horizon

Crypto art caught mainstream media attention in early 2021 when Christie’s auctioned Beeple’s ‘Everydays’ for $69 million. While this has increased public awareness of crypto art, it remains an area that is opaque to most. As with other areas of Web3, time will likely be required before achieving mass adoption. With the maturation of the NFT space, the hope among visual artists is the fuller value of authorial works can be tapped, so that creators see the financial gains that have been absent in today’s mediasphere. Sadly however, at the time of writing, some NFT marketplaces appear to be reneging on artist royalties. This development has dismayed many who look to NFTs as a viable alternative to the traditional art market. In light of this, the importance of embedding the royalties within the NFT smart contract has become evermore evident.

Illustrated Visual Communication for the Online World

A spectacled character with a back-turned cap holds up a giant computer pointer, arguably the most active icon in visual communication online.
Leftclick (2022)

Illustrated Visual Communication for the Online World

As a means of conveying messages and ideas, illustration has long been central to visual communication. At the turn of the c. 20th, the surge in American and European print-based publishing incubated what became commercial illustration. Today however, the primary medium in which illustrated works exist is not one of mechanical reproduction, but rather the various interfaces of the mediasphere.

When online, images exist as data, irrespective of how they were created. The desktop monitors that display images have, since 2008, been joined by the touchscreens of mobile devices. As a result we are continuously surrounded by web images. Without the inherent stability of print, artwork now dwells in a medium where scale and dimensions are subject to flux. In addition, the ever-wider adoption of broadband has made possible the use of motion in otherwise static illustrated images. As the internet has matured into what many call web2, the place where many first encounter images is not at the url where they are published. Instead, the initial contact with images happens on search engine result pages, and the scrolling feeds of social networks.

Digital Symbols

In 2022 global internet usage stands at around two thirds of the world’s population. To navigate web2 presumes user familiarity with digital symbols. Many of these are provided freely by Google, and are considered a standard convention for desktop and mobile use. The global community recognises these recurring internet symbols and can infer what is meant when they appear in software interfaces. Given our growing fluency with digital symbols, it is clear why they appear in illustrated content, particularly digital product illustration which can be seen on user-facing apps and websites. By definition, illustration must communicate something particular, and these symbols are a way to speak in the language of today’s internet. Historically, changes in print reproduction have affected the commercial art field. Similarly, the evolving web is almost certain to influence the production of illustrated images, and how onlookers interact with visual works.

The Affect Digital Drawing has Made on Contemporary Illustration

With a chisel-tip marker, a young girl pulls a line of red ink across the surface of an A4 drawing pad.
Workspace. Drawing Pad Cover (2022)

The Affect Digital Drawing has Made on Contemporary Illustration

Though traditional drawing techniques are far from obsolete, digital drawing has seen a marked rise in the last decade. Aside from spurring demand for software, this is contributing to the market growth of Digital Drawing Tablets. Standing at over 710 million USD in 2021, the global market value is predicted to rise at a compound annual rate of over 7.5% going into 2028. Global growth is also forecast for the traditional art supplies market. However, those who draw digitally do not share the same need for physical supplies. This shift in practical methods is widely accepted as part of contemporary illustration.

The Absent Matter of Digital Drawing

With physical media, visual textures often reveal how an image is made and reproduced. Notably this was foregrounded by the Ben Day paintings of Roy Lichtenstein. Working digitally, a draftsman can make images that are void of textures, or emulate the concrete traits that are otherwise absent. What is more, digital methods have replaced physical originals with files that can be edited ad infinitum. This is a marked advantage whenever commercial assignments are subject to review.

Digital drawing replicates mark-making by way of software algorithms. To paraphrase digital culture theorist, Lev Manovich, the simulation of a medium means to simulate its tools and interfaces. As more than one medium is present in user software, the affordances of digital workspaces expand what draftsmen can do. This industry-standard software is available to professional and amateur users alike. This has removed a major barrier to entry in a global labour pool that is being flattened by access to broadband.

In spite of this transition, what have remained consistent are the competences that predict a successful drawing, which can be applied to paper or digital. When depicting pictorial subjects, a draftsman’s technique bears upon the fundamentals of volume, composition, light, and colour, to mention a few. The means chosen to prepare images are, in essence, part of the cumulative know-how of a draftsman’s repertoire.

The List Goes On: One Reason To Reconsider Illustration Listicles

Tucked in the beak of a bewildered homing bird, a hand-written list is flown through the air
Homing Bird (2023)

The List Goes On: One Reason To Reconsider Illustration Listicles

Given how SEO influences online publishing, the list article has become all too commonplace, and illustration is not exempt from its reach. One needn’t look far to find posts that itemise tools, trends, and must-have skills in the field. Conversely, it can be noticed that ‘listicles’ of this sort are nowhere to be found among reputable illustration organisations. It is unlikely that industry professionals are without pertinent views on this topic, which raises the question… Why does this commentary seldom come from relevant experts? And moreover, how valid are the illustration listicles that are being posted?

  • 10 Illustration Trends for 2023
  • 10 Tools to Supercharge your Artwork
  • 10 of the Hottest Styles in 2023
  • 10 Essential Tips to Improve Your Portfolio
  • 10 Illustrators you Should Follow
  • 10 Courses to Boost your Illustration Skills
  • 10 Dos and Don’ts for Recent Graduates
  • 10 Steps to a Lucrative Career in Illustration
  • The List Goes On

These listicles are usually easy to recognise, as they are often short descriptive summaries, and can easily be interspersed with any salient themes of the day. What is problematic is they are often penned by creative-industries personnel who do not actually work in the field. Meanwhile, illustrators, agents, educators, and industry experts are conspicuously absent. A media-literate reader would rightly question if there is adequate domain-specific knowledge to underpin such industry-wide commentary. And while quoting an active practitioner might sure up an article, it is no substitute for meaningful research.

A Question of Credibility

Potentially informing creators and commissioners alike, listicles regularly speak of illustration as though it were a homogenous bloc, a preconception with no basis in reality. Furthermore, the major illustration markets each have their own distinctive needs. Editorial publishing, creating children’s books, gaming, entertainment, the comic book industry, advertising, and making saleable goods are not one and the same. In spite of all the insights being claimed by illustration listicles, this basic market segmentation is rarely mentioned.

“In a temporal world, when references are immediately commodified as the latest trend or fashion, it is ever more important to understand your own practice as an illustrator – to appreciate one’s status of being beyond simply that of an image maker […]”

Former AOI board member Roderick Mills, 2019

As illustration moves further into professionalisation, wide-ranging reforms are being influenced by meaningful debate among educators, academics, researchers, and practitioners. The surface-level commentary that is typical of the aforementioned listicles is too often reductive, and ultimately counterproductive to the cultural and economic future that illustration is striving to build. In light of how SEO now influences online publishing it may be unrealistic to discontinue posting trend listicles. But perhaps a different tack ought to be considered, one acknowledging illustration as being a multifaceted field of practice. And in turn, the work of illustrators deserves to be meaningfully contextualised by authoritative sources.