Copyright won’t solve creators’ Generative AI problem

The machine-learning monkey’s paw.

Cory Doctorow


This week (Feb 8–17), I’ll be in Australia, touring my book Chokepoint Capitalism with my co-author, Rebecca Giblin. We’re doing a remote event for NZ on Feb 13. Next are Melbourne (Feb 14), Sydney (Feb 15) and Canberra (Feb 16/17). I hope to see you!

The media spectacle of generative AI (in which AI companies’ breathless claims of their software’s sorcerous powers are endlessly repeated) has understandably alarmed many creative workers, a group that’s already traumatized by extractive abuse by media and tech companies.

Even though the claims about “AI” are overblown and overhyped, creators are right to be alarmed. Their bosses would like nothing more than to fire them and replace them with pliable software. The “creative” industries talk a lot about how audiences should be paying for creative works, but the companies that bring creators’ works to market treat their own payments to creators as a cost to be minimized.

Creative labor markets are primarily regulated through copyright: the exclusive rights that accrue to creators at the moment that their works are “fixated.” Media and tech companies then bargain to buy or license those rights. The theory goes that the more expansive those rights are, the more they’ll be worth to corporations, and the more they’ll pay creators for them.

That’s the theory. In practice, we’ve spent 40 years expanding copyright. We’ve made it last longer; expanded it to cover more works, hiked the statutory damages for infringements and made it easier to prove violations. This has made the entertainment industry larger and more profitable — but the share of those profits going to creators has declined, both in real terms and proportionately.

In other words, today creators have more copyright, the companies that buy creators’ copyrights have more profits, but creators are poorer than they were 40 years ago. How can this be so?

As Rebecca Giblin and I explain in our book Chokepoint Capitalism, the sums creators get from media and tech companies aren’t determined by how durable or far-reaching copyright is — rather, they’re determined by the structure of the creative market.