Artists Urge Action on AI, but Congress Is Slow to Respond

Scarlett Johansson called out OpenAI this week for mimicking her voice for a new chatbot, underscoring the urgency that many artists feel about regulating artificial intelligence.

But in Congress, taking on AI is starting to resemble wrestling an octopus. It’s so sprawling, it’s hard to know how to begin.

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The Senate AI Working Group issued a “roadmap” last week. But that left it vague where Congress is going or when it will get there.

Some have warned against stifling innovation. And while some regulation is likely to happen eventually, it appears it will be done piecemeal — one tentacle at a time.

“From the House perspective, part of the challenge is that we’re under Republican control,” Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu of California, co-chair of the House task force on AI, tells Variety. “It’s been very chaotic. We’re just trying to stop stupid stuff.”

Hollywood unions and artists organizations argue that AI trains on artists’ work, and — if left unchecked — will churn out cheap imitations that will steal their jobs. They are lobbying for proposals to address copyright concerns and to outlaw nonconsensual AI “deepfakes,” which threaten performers.

Some advocates envision a licensing system like ASCAP or BMI, in which AI companies would pay royalties to train on copyrighted work, with artists having the ability to opt out.

“Our interest is in making sure individual creators are being paid for the ingestion of their content into AI platforms, for which they are not currently remunerated despite the fact that their souls are being stolen,” says James Silverberg, CEO of the American Society for Collective Rights Licensing, which distributes royalties to illustrators and photographers.

Some artists groups have lined up behind a bill, introduced in April, that would require disclosure of AI training data, which they see as a first step toward compensation.

“We need to make sure we’re maintaining a log of copyrighted material being used to create these systems,” Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the author of the bill, tells Variety.

That may or may not lead to artists getting paid. Tech lobbyists have argued that disclosure would be impractical and that offering any meaningful compensation would bankrupt AI companies, given the massive scale of AI training sets. AI companies also argue that training is fair use.

Ultimately the question will be settled in court.

“There is a role for Congress here,” Schiff says. “Whether Congress can figure it out before the courts do — I’m skeptical.”

Leaders in both parties have touted the promise of AI delivering breakthroughs in science and medicine. And while the industry is not uniformly opposed to regulation, it has urged Congress to articulate the big-picture problems it’s trying to solve.

“That is a very calculated position designed to slow down the regulatory process,” says Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, national executive director of SAG-AFTRA. “I don’t believe it’s in the interest of our members to slow down the process while the companies’ development and implementation of AI continues racing forward relentlessly.”

The actors union has kept its focus on a bill to outlaw nonconsensual deepfakes. That proposal has attracted broad support — especially after high-profile incidents involving malicious fakes of President Joe Biden and Taylor Swift.

“Some of the lowest-hanging fruit is addressing deepfakes,” Schiff says. “I imagine we can get to yes, and I hope fairly quickly, on the use of these replicas.”

Even that has faced resistance, in part from the Motion Picture Association, which represents the major studios. The MPA has argued that makers of film and TV have a First Amendment right to re-create public figures in fictional contexts.

The MPA is not against requiring disclosure of AI inputs — though it is opposed if the AI training is done “in house,” using copyrighted work that a studio owns or has licensed.

Reconciling these interests is shaping up to be a long process.

“We’re still gathering data and trying to understand what is the best way to solve the problems that AI has introduced,” Lieu says. “I think we will likely pass some sort of law to provide rules of the road for the future. At this point, it is hard to know what that is going to look like.”

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