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    In a First, Beijing Court Grants Copyright to AI-Assisted Artwork

    The court ruled that AI-generated images demonstrating human originality and intellectual input should be protected by copyright law.

    In a legal first for China, a Beijing court has granted copyright protection to artwork created using artificial intelligence with human guidance. The ruling comes amid growing concerns over intellectual property rights in works created using generative AI technologies, with experts suggesting it could influence future legal interpretations in this field. 

    In the case, a man, surnamed Li, accused a woman, surnamed Liu, of copyright infringement for using an image he created with Stable Diffusion, an AI text-to-image generator, in her online poem as an illustration. While Li sought 5,000 yuan ($700) in compensation, Liu contested the claim, questioning whether Li even held the copyright to the artwork.

    Initiated in May, with the trial commencing online on Aug. 24, the case garnered widespread attention across the country. The proceedings — streamed live — drew an audience of over 170,000 viewers, sparking debate over AI and copyright. Liu, the defendant, was eventually ordered to issue a public apology and pay Li 500 yuan in compensation.

    Siding with Li, the Beijing Internet Court ruled that the image qualifies for copyright. The court recognized Li as the author, holding that the image was “directly created from the plaintiff’s intellectual input” and “manifested in (his) individual expression.”

    “The core purpose of the copyright system is to encourage creation,” the verdict stated. “AI-generated images, as long as they demonstrate human originality and intellectual input, should be recognized as works and protected by copyright law.”

    The court also noted that though the image was produced by AI, a machine cannot be considered the author since it has no free will. The creation, the court added, was driven by human input, viewing the content generation as a process where humans utilize tools to create.

    In stark contrast, the U.S. Copyright Office in February denied copyright protection for images produced using the generative AI software Midjourney in a graphic novel. The Copyright Office had stated that the images were not “products of human authorship.”

    Coming at a time when concerns over the impact of AI have intensified in China following the surge in popularity of generative AI services this year, the Beijing court ruling has also triggered diverse opinions among legal experts. 

    Some see it as a progressive step, encouraging innovation and recognizing the role of human input in AI creations. But others have raised concerns that this approach blurs the lines of legal authorship, questioning whether AI-assisted processes should qualify for copyright, while cautioning that it could lead to increased infringement risks. 

    Zhang Xin, executive director at the Digital Economy and Law Innovation Research Center of the University of International Business and Economics, told Sixth Tone that the ruling opens the door for copyrighting AI-generated content. 

    According to Zhang, while it may encourage creators and tech developers to embrace and innovate with AI tools, it also raises the potential for increased copyright infringement risks for those who use these AI-created works.

    Dong Wentao, a partner at Shanghai Allbright Law Offices specializing in copyright protection, emphasized the case’s significance in seeking to clarify the copyright status of “half-human, half-AI works.” 

    Dong underscored that the image in question was produced through multiple interactions between a human and AI, rather than a single query. While not a model case, Dong believes it could serve as a reference for future rulings in similar situations.

    In a scenario where individuals are commissioned to create a work of art, he said, copyright ownership in China is granted either solely to the artist or shared with the individual who commissioned it depending on their involvement. 

    However, the involvement of AI as a commissioned entity complicates matters, as machines cannot legally hold copyright. The Beijing court, however, distinguished this case from typical commissions, noting that AI lacks free will. The court ruled that the AI developer doesn’t own the copyright, since their role was limited to creating the AI tool, and not the artwork itself.

    Dong noted that the ruling seems to extend copyright protection to the technical side of creation, specifically the prompts and instructions used in human-AI interactions. He explained that under this interpretation, replicating the same method to produce similar art could be considered a copyright violation. However, Dong argued this contradicts the principle of the copyright law, since it protects the original expression instead of the idea.

    Contributions: He Qitong; editor: Apurva.

    (Header image: Visuals from IC and @知识库 on WeChat, reedited by Sixth Tone)