A committee in the House Of Lords has said that AI companies should get permission before using existing content to train generative AI models. And the UK government should, it says, act now to decide if laws need to be updated to provide adequate protection for copyright owners, rather than waiting for the outcome of complicated legal disputes.

AI "may offer immense value to society", the Lords Communications And Digital Committee writes, "but that does not warrant the violation of copyright law or its underpinning principles. We do not believe it is fair for tech firms to use rightsholder data for commercial purposes without permission or compensation, and to gain vast financial rewards in the process". 

The copyright industries - including the music industry - are adamant that AI companies must get permission before training models with existing content. However, many in the tech sector argue that AI training is covered by copyright exceptions in at least some countries. 

In their report, the Lords write that, while the application of copyright law in the context of AI may be complex, "the principles remain clear. The point of copyright is to reward creators for their efforts, prevent others from using works without permission and incentivise innovation. The current legal framework is failing to ensure these outcomes occur and the government has a duty to act. It cannot sit on its hands for the next decade until sufficient case law has emerged". 

The copyright obligations of AI companies under current law are being tested via a number of lawsuits filed with the courts, mainly in the US, although in the UK too. However, the Lords say they are "not convinced that waiting for the courts to provide clarity is practical", because those legal battles are likely to drag on for years and "in the meantime rightsholders would lose out and contested business practices would become normalised". 

Last year, the UK government proposed introducing a new data mining exception into UK law that would benefit AI companies. That plan, unsurprisingly, resulted in a major backlash from the copyright industries and, as a result, was dropped. Ministers then said they would bring together copyright owners and tech companies to agree a code of practice, with the aim of having something in place by the end of 2023. Work on the code now seems to have stalled. 

Although the big data mining exception that was proposed is definitely off the table, the tech sector continues to lobby hard on this issue, and some in the copyright industries now worry that an albeit narrower exception may as yet be put forward by ministers as a compromise. Keen to stop that from happening, copyright owners will be pleased at the boldness of the committee's report regarding the need for permission and compensation. 

The Lords conclude by saying that government "should publish its view on whether copyright law provides sufficient protections to rightsholders" given the recent advancements in AI. "If this identifies major uncertainty", they add, "the government should set out options for updating legislation to ensure copyright principles remain future proof and technologically neutral".

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