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Thaler v. Perlmutter

District court affirms Copyright Office’s denial of copyright registration application for visual art generated solely by artificial intelligence, holding that human authorship is essential part of valid copyright claim.

Stephen Thaler developed and owns an artificial intelligence program, dubbed the “Creativity Machine,” which produced a visual work of art. In his application to register the work with the Copyright Office, Thaler identified the copyright author as the Creativity Machine and himself as the copyright owner. The Copyright Office denied the application because copyright law extends only to works crated by human beings.

Thaler challenged the Copyright Office’s denial of his application to register the Creativity Machine’s work by filing an action in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia pursuant to the Administrative Procedures Act. Thaler and the Copyright Office filed competing motions for summary judgment that presented a single legal issue: whether a work autonomously generated by an artificial intelligence system is copyrightable.

The court affirmed the Copyright Office’s denial of Thaler’s application, holding that “human authorship is an essential part of a valid copyright claim.” Section 101 of the Copyright Act requires that a work have an “author” in order to be eligible for copyright. The court concluded that the author must be human, for three primary reasons.

First, the Copyright Clause of the U.S. Constitution was adopted to incentivize the creation of unique and original works of authorship. Nonhuman actors, unlike human authors, require no financial incentive to create. “[C]opyright was therefore not designed to reach” artificial intelligence systems.

Second, the Copyright Act of 1909 provided that only a “person” could “secure copyright” for a work. The court found that the legislative history of the Copyright Act of 1976 is devoid of any indication that Congress sought to extend the concept of authorship to nonhuman actors. To the contrary, the congressional reports stated that Congress sought to incorporate the “original work of authorship” standard “without change.”

Third, case law has “consistently recognized” the human authorship requirement. In the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1884 opinion in Burrow-Giles Lithographic Co. v. Sarony, the Court, in upholding the constitutionality of an amendment to the Copyright Act covering photographs, found it significant that the human creator, not the camera, “conceived of and designed the image and then used the camera to capture the image.”

Cabining the scope of its holding, the court noted that its decision did not address “how much input is necessary to qualify the user of an AI system as an ‘author’ of a generated work.” The administrative record presented to the court established that Thaler “played no role in using the AI to generate the work.” The court’s decision leaves open future questions about the precise point at which assistance from artificial intelligence tips authorship from human (and thus copyrightable) to nonhuman (and not copyrightable).

Summary prepared by David Grossman and Keane Barger