US court rules AI-generated art cannot be copyrighted

A Recent Entrance to Paradise, generated by the DABUS AI (Stephen Thaler)
A Recent Entrance to Paradise, generated by the DABUS AI (Stephen Thaler)

A US court has ruled AI-generated art cannot be copyrighted, in a case related to one currently heading through the UK Supreme Court.

The case was brought by 73-year-old computer scientist Stephen Thaler, on behalf of his DABUS AI system.

Thaler claims his DABUS AI is sentient and capable of acts of invention.

“Sometimes, I set a system free to imagine new intellectual property,” Thaler said in a YouTuber interview with MediaNama.

In the filing, Thaler referred to his DABUS AI as a “creativity machine,” citing an image generated by the tool, albeit one rather basic by the standards of the latest AI image-generation software.

The court rejected the claim, stating “human authorship is an essential part of a valid copyright claim”.

However, unlike other recent AI copyright cases where the aim is to establish precedent that will make it easier to commercialise partly AI-generated works, Thaler wants to establish his AI as the sole, valid author.

The crux here is Thaler claims the image of a rail track, dubbed A Recent Entrance to Paradise, was “autonomously generated by an AI” and “lack[ed] traditional human authorship”.

This is not the first of Thaler’s cases regarding his DABUS AI.

Can AI art be copyrighted in the UK?

In March 2023, the UK Supreme Court heard arguments in a case in which Thaler claims DABUS created two inventions, including food containers, based on a fractal design, that can be locked together for easy stacking.

Thaler first submitted patent applications in the UK in 2018. These were rejected, as was his court of appeal application for the patents, in 2021.

The UK Supreme Court is yet to announce a ruling in the case.

Thaler has previously suggested AI-generated content can be checked for originality by manually looking through patent filings, or by using Google reverse image search for artworks.

The US Copyright Office released a statement in March 2023, in an attempt to clarify its position on AI-generated works.

It cited both a previous rejection of Thaler’s A Recent Entrance to Paradise image and an unrelated graphic novel where the imagery was generated by prompts written by a person.

“In the Office’s view, it is well-established that copyright can protect only material that is the product of human creativity,” the statement reads.

This is not the end of the debate, though, as the borders are blurred in generative AI tools that can take a human-made work as a base and modify it to create a new artwork.

The US Copyright Office states, though, that “copyright will only protect the human-authored aspects of the work”.