A court in the Chinese city of Shenzen has decided that an article that was written by an artificial intelligence program has copyright protection. The article was written by Tencent’s Dreamwriter AI Writing Robot, an internal code at the Chinese tech giant that produces half a million articles per year in subjects such as weather, finance, sport, and real estate. The program has been writing articles for various Tencent media outlets since 2015. The case involved the Shanghai Yingxun Technology Company, which copied and published one of the Dreamwriter authored articles, which prompted Tencent to sue for copyright infringement. The court sided with Tencent and ordered Yingxun to pay 1,500 yuan ($216 USD) in damages.
With this decision, China becomes one of the most prominent jurisdictions for the protection of AI with copyright. To my knowledge, this is the first case in the world involving a copyright work authored by a sophisticated AI, and it is a very interesting development from a legal perspective. The defendants would have tried to claim that the work was not protected by copyright as it was not authored by a human, and therefore would be in the public domain and it could be used by anyone. However, the court decided that “the article’s form of expression conforms to the requirements of written work and the content showed the selection, analysis and judgement of relevant stock market information and data.” Moreover, “the article’s structure was reasonable, the logic was clear and it had a certain originality.” In other words, it fulfilled the requirements for copyright protection.
This is great news for the few of us who have argued that some AI works should be given copyright protection. Habitual readers may remember that I have been writing extensively on this subject (here and here), and my argument has been that if we leave out the strict human authorship argument, this rests entirely on a question of originality, and this should be considered on a case by case basis. Up until now, the law has been ambiguous to say the least around the world, and for the most part it has been assumed that these works would be in the public domain as there is neither an author or originality. The relevance of the Chinese decision is that it bypasses the authorship argument and goes directly to the question of originality, is the work original in the copyright sense? If it is, then it should be given protection.
Whenever I have been presenting on this subject in the past, a common question is a variation of “so what”. Surely, AI may produce some interesting works of art, or it could write bad poems, and even write a journalistic piece, but so what? It’s not as if there is a clamour for copyright protection for machines. My response has always been that AI won’t replace musicians, artists and writers, but that it is already being deployed precisely in situations as the one described above. AI can produce passable music, it can write low-information articles, it can produce some amusing art. There has always been a market for some low quality and low cost content in all walks of the creative industries, and AI provides cost-effective tools to produce just that. It is no coincidence that an early proponent of AI music called Jukedeck was acquired by TikTok, which leads one to believe that there will be some AI musical component in the social media’s future plans.
The assumption in the past was that none of these works had any copyright protection and therefore could be copied and reproduced by everyone in the world, but with this decision, the Chinese have taken an interesting first step towards full protection for AI works. While not all AI creators are interested in profiting from their AI investment using copyright (coughGooglecough), it is clear that a few tech companies are keen on at least not allowing competitors to profit from their AI investment. Needless to say, Tencent doesn’t need the $216 dollars that it got from this ruling, but what matters is that the competitor tech company doesn’t get to re-publish the Dreamwriter articles for free.
What next? Expect this subject to be litigated more in the future as similar possible infringement takes place. AI is here to stay in the creative industries, and while humans will continue to be the centre of copyright protection, it’s evident that the robots are coming.
After all, the mech shall inherit the Earth.