Thaler Suit Against Copyright Office Asks for Analog Reading of Statute

Last February, the U.S. Copyright Office rejected the registration application filed by Stephen Thaler for a visual work entitled “A Recent Entrance to Paradise.” Thaler averred that the image was generated by an AI he designed called “Creativity Machine,” and on that basis, the Office affirmed the longstanding doctrine that copyright rights only attach to works of human authorship. In a series of cross motions, Thaler now argues that “non-humans have been authors under the statute for more than a hundred years.”

Broadly, Thaler asks the court for statutory interpretations based on proving a negative—namely that the Copyright Act does not explicitly state that an author must be human, or that an author cannot be non-human. His brief is peppered with examples in which the law does not expressly prohibit a non-human from having an “idea” or making creative “choices.” And he’s right. Nothing in the law makes such statements, but why would it? It is only very recently that law—and not just copyright law—must confront issues presented by sophisticated machines capable of performing functions ordinarily reserved for humans.

Prior to the present moment, it would have been absurd to affirmatively state that works of creativity or invention must be made by human beings. And it is frankly still absurd. Vehicular law does not explicitly state that the rules apply solely to human drivers (though we may have to address this one); marital law does not explicitly state that the parties must be human; and most relevant to this discussion, employment law does not explicitly state that non-discrimination and other rules of fairness apply only to human persons. Employment law is informative because Thaler’s primary claim of copyright in the visual work rests on the Work Made for Hire (WMFH) doctrine on the basis that “Creativity Machine” is the legal equivalent of an employee. But here, Thaler asks the court to read the law both strictly and metaphorically at the same time. Because nowhere in employment law are any rights vested in the analogous employee. For instance, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states:

Under the laws enforced by EEOC, it is illegal to discriminate against someone (applicant or employee) because of that person’s race, color, religion, sex (including gender identity, sexual orientation, and pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.

Title VII does not emphatically state that those qualities must describe human persons, but if we look to the definition of “persons,” we find …

The term “person” includes one or more individuals, governments, governmental agencies, political subdivisions, labor unions, partnerships, associations, corporations, legal representatives, mutual companies, joint-­stock companies, trusts, unincorporated organizations, trustees, trustees in cases under Title 11 [originally, bankruptcy], or receivers.

So, if we are following Thaler’s supposedly rigorous statutory interpretation, we can end the discussion by noting that there is no mention of computers, algorithms, machines, robots, etc. to support the argument that “Creativity Machine” is an employable “person” as an operation of law. Indeed, even the non-human entities in the definition above do not exist except as various means to organize the work or interests of human persons, and this is relevant to the copyright question presented.

While it is true that entities like corporations can own copyrights, the rights themselves do not exist until the moment of fixation of a human’s conception and the result of a human’s effort. Until then, there are no rights which may be transferred to the entity—either by independent or employment contract. Human authorship is not removed from the production of the work by the administrative formalities entailed with corporate ownership. On the contrary, human authorship must occur in order for the rights to exist at all.

This same principle applies to Thaler’s semantic game alleging that pseudonymous or anonymous works become works of non-human authorship merely because the term of protection is no longer based on the lifetime of the author. This makes no sense. Does Thaler argue that works made prior to the 1976 Act were not works of human authorship simply because they were protected under fixed terms unrelated to the life of the authors? He is conflating administrative rules (which are admittedly more complicated than necessary) with the doctrine of human authorship, which predates those rules by a few centuries.

Simply put, there is no concept of copyright law anywhere in western culture in which the utilitarian purpose of incentivizing authors to produce and disseminate works is not intertwined with the principle that the fruits of intellectual labor are the property of the author as a matter of natural right. The hyper-utilitarian view often overlooks the natural rights vested in the author, but the bundle of rights codified in Section 106 of the Copyright Act are as intangible and violable as any other civil right articulated by statute.  And such rights do not exist without humans.

Thaler and others are free to invoke philosophical debate as to whether an AI can have “ideas” or make creative “choices,” and it’s all fine chatter for a round of drinks, but even if it could be proven that the AI is “conscious enough” to make a choice to create and how to create, this is irrelevant as a matter of law. And we do not even need to confront AI per se. An elephant can make a painting, and a circus can own an elephant, but the circus cannot claim copyright in the painting as a WMFH because neither copyright rights nor an employment agreement exists between elephant and circus. And this is because no rights—copyright or otherwise—exist for the elephant that give her standing in court.

Personally, I believe the courts have gone too far in blurring the line between corporate and human personhood—e.g., vesting Hobby Lobby, Inc. with the right of religious exercise, but even in that controversial case, human persons, as owners of a closely held company, remain at the center of the finding. This is not so in Thaler’s claim of copyright in the visual work at issue. “Creativity Machine” is not a “person” by any statutory definition and cannot, therefore, have agreed to an employment contract in which it was understood that the employee would produce visual works under the WMFH doctrine. It is an absurdity on its face scratching at pencil shavings of statutory meaning, and Thaler’s appeal to history does him no favors.

I suspect the courts will find Thaler’s reading of the law to be untenable and will further advise that only Congress can change the Copyright Act. And if Congress were to do so in this context, I would hope that they affirmatively state that authorship must be human. If elephants don’t have such rights, why should robots?

Robot image by: sarah5

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