A group of 17 well-known authors — too many to usefully list here, but you’ve probably heard of, and certainly live in a world influenced by, the likes of John Grisham and George R.R. Martin — recently joined the stampede to sue artificial intelligence firm OpenAI. Following earlier plaintiffs, these authors allege that use of their work to “train” Large Language Model products like ChatGPT amounts to “systematic theft on a mass scale.”
OpenAI counters that letting its models read and learn from the authors’ books is perfectly According to Hoyle under, among other things, the “fair use” provisions of coypright law (which courts have held protect such “reading” by search engines).
It looks like a legal thicket. But I’m not a lawyer and this column isn’t legal advice. My interest in the matter stems from my standing as a lifelong reader.
I REALLY like books. Over the course of my life I’ve purchased thousands of volumes in print or electronic format, borrowed more from lending libraries, read a good many of them (not as many as I’ve tilted at, I confess), and learned a lot from them.
Whatever the legal grounds for the lawsuit, its essence comes down to a claim that the function of a reader (whether that reader is “human” or “artificial”) is to buy authors’ books … and do nothing with them except perhaps display them prettily on household shelves, if even that.
When you read a book, your brain inevitably stores a mental copy of that book, in part or whole. You remember it. If it’s a well-written book and you’re an attentive reader, you also learn things from, and find yourself influenced by, its content.
Those things, according to the litigious authors, constitute theft, and if you do much of them you’re engaged in such theft “on a massive scale.”
Oddly, nearly all of the involved authors cheerfully confess to theft of that kind on their own pars. Few if any claim complete originality for their own work, and most would get laughed out of any room they made such claims in.
Why should we care whether the brains reading, remembering, learning from, and acting on the influence of a story are made of meat or silicon?
Does — should — the purchase of a book confer absolute and perpetual veto power upon the author to control how readers use what they learn from that book?
If it did, none of the authors involved in this suit would have anything to sue over. We’d have never heard of them. Their works would remain unpublished and likely unwritten.
Their fear of replacement by AI is certainly understandable, but their demand for control of work they’ve released into the learning wild is unreasonable.
Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.