Authors’ copyright lawsuit against OpenAI over ChatGPT begins

A copyright infringement lawsuit against OpenAI by a group of fiction writers including Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin began on Wednesday

A lawsuit filed by a group of popular authors against OpenAI alleging that their copyrighted works were infringed through their use in training ChatGPT moved forward on Wednesday in what will be a significant case for artificial intelligence (AI) and copyright law.

The Authors Guild filed the suit in federal court with the fiction authors seeking class-action status. Plaintiffs include several prominent authors such as David Baldacci, John Grisham, George R.R. Martin and Jodi Picoult. The first pre-trial conference hearing in the case was scheduled for Wednesday before a federal judge in the Southern District of New York.

The authors allege that OpenAI infringed their copyright works by feeding those novels into the large language models (LLMs) used to train ChatGPT, the groundbreaking generative AI chatbot. These LLMs allow the AI tool, such as ChatGPT, to learn from the concepts and content that it later uses to generate content in response to users’ prompts.

"These algorithms are at the heart of Defendants’ massive commercial enterprise," their suit states. "And at the heart of these algorithms is systematic theft on a mass scale."

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ChatGPT OpenAI

A lawsuit against OpenAI filed by a group of fiction authors alleging copyright infringement began on Wednesday. (LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP via Getty Images / Getty Images)

Their suit also claims that OpenAI’s LLMs "endanger fiction writers’ ability to make a living, in that the LLMs allow anyone to generate — automatically and freely (or very cheaply) — texts that they would otherwise pay writers to create. Moreover, Defendants’ LLMs can spit out derivative works: material that is based on, mimics, summarizes, or paraphrases Plaintiff’s works, and harms the market for them."

OpenAI declined to comment on the pending litigation.

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CHATGPT OPENAI

OpenAI has previously acknowledged its large language models use copyrighted works to train AI, arguing that it's protected under the fair use doctrine. (Leon Neal/Getty Images / Getty Images)

A report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) updated in August on the subject of AI and copyright law notes that OpenAI acknowledged in a filing with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that its programs are trained with the "use of large, publicly available datasets that include copyrighted works." 

Within that document, OpenAI asserted that the fair use doctrine protects the training of AI systems under current law. Among the elements of OpenAI’s arguments include that the training of AI systems uses original works in a "highly transformative" way to train the systems on the patterns of human-generated content so that it can provide more useful AI-generated content and that the generated content is different from what it was trained on.

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Sam Altman looks on at APEC summit

OpenAI's Sam Altman returned to the Microsoft-backed AI leader after his ouster by since-replaced members of the company's board. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images / Getty Images)

The CRS noted that whether the copyrighted content can be used under the fair use doctrine depends on four legal factors, including whether the use is for commercial or nonprofit educational purposes, the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount and substantiality of the copyrighted work used and the effect of its use on the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The legal team representing the fiction authors provided a supplemental filing on Tuesday notifying the court that they intend to amend the complaint to add Microsoft "in light of recent developments — including those over the last week — in connection with Microsoft’s role in and relationship to OpenAI." 

Microsoft did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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OpenAI and Microsoft were involved in a whirlwind week of corporate turbulence, as OpenAI CEO Sam Altman was ousted by the company’s board, prompting an employee revolt and leading to his hiring by Microsoft — which is a significant investor in OpenAI. Eventually, Altman returned to OpenAI as CEO after several board members were replaced, leaving the company’s partnership with Microsoft intact.

A similar lawsuit was filed against OpenAI last week by Julian Sancton, a nonfiction author who is seeking to mount a similar class action suit against OpenAI and Microsoft over alleged copyright infringement. Sancton’s legal counsel notified the Southern District of New York noting that the case hasn’t been assigned and that the counsel plans to attend the Authors Guild pre-conference hearing given the related nature of the case.