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The Quandary of AI Image Generators and Copyrighted Characters

May 17, 2024

The Legal Maze of AI Creativity

In an era where Artificial Intelligence (AI) is revolutionizing how we create and interact with digital content, a new form of controversy has surfaced. Companies like OpenAI and Midjourney, heralded for their groundbreaking AI image generators, seem to have opened a proverbial Pandora's box. These AI marvels, trained on the vast repository of internet content, seem to have a blind spot for something crucial – copyright laws.

The Brewing Storm in AI's Sky

Gary Marcus, a notable professor and author, and Reid Southen, a renowned film industry concept artist, have thrown the spotlight on a critical issue in a recent piece for IEEE Spectrum. Their argument hinges on the premise that tools like DALL-E 3 and Midjourney could be trudging through a minefield of copyright infringements.

This debate is not a simmering pot but a roaring inferno. The New York Times' lawsuit against Microsoft and OpenAI, as reported by the BBC, citing "billions of dollars" in damages for training ChatGPT and other language models on its content without permission, only adds fuel to this fire. Even famous authors like George RR Martin and John Grisham echo similar concerns.

Moreover, a group of artists has taken a stand, filing a class-action suit against Midjourney and Stability AI, as per a Reuters report, alleging misuse of their copyrighted work by these AI image generators.

The Damning Evidence

Experimentation by Southen revealed a startling fact – it was child's play to generate plagiaristic outputs of commercial films. The reproduced images of Marvel superheroes, albeit slightly altered, were telltale signs of the AI's training on copyrighted materials.

The issue doesn't stop there. Without even naming popular movies, AI tools could replicate images resembling iconic characters like Nintendo's Mario or Darth Vader from the Star Wars franchise, owned by Disney. The term "screencap" alone resulted in images closely mirroring those from Star Wars, Marvel, and even the Frozen franchise.

The Legal Labyrinth

At this juncture, it's a dicey situation for lawmakers. While it's not crystal clear whether these reproductions constitute copyright infringement, the evidence of copyrighted material being a part of the AI's training diet is hard to ignore.

Marcus and Southen, though not lawyers, suggest that this scenario could potentially open Midjourney to extensive litigation from various corners of the entertainment industry.

Furthermore, the fact that companies like Midjourney profit from these models, charging a monthly subscription, only adds to the complexity of the situation.

Beyond Simple Solutions

Tackling this issue is no walk in the park. User-facing filters are a band-aid solution to a much deeper wound. AI companies have implemented guardrails, but these have been trivially easy to circumvent.

The "black box" nature of these AI models adds another layer of difficulty. Unlike Google Images, which lists sources, AI image generators offer no such reassurance.

Experts have drawn parallels to the fate of Napster, a peer-to-peer file-sharing service that faced legal challenges in the early 2000s. As pointed out by Foreign Policy, could OpenAI and Midjourney face a similar downfall?

A Future Fraught with Legal Tangles

Marcus and Southen caution that the potential for litigation could be immense, questioning the ethical foundation of these AI endeavors.

In summary, AI image generators are skating on thin ice. As they navigate the choppy waters of creativity and copyright law, one can only wonder: Will they find a legal safe harbor, or are they headed for a catastrophic collision with the law?


  • AI image generators like those from OpenAI and Midjourney are potentially infringing on copyrights.
  • Legal concerns arise as these tools may use copyrighted materials for training.
  • Lawsuits and expert opinions highlight the severity of the issue.
  • The legal outcome and future implications remain uncertain.

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