Not long ago I learned, as so many writers have, that a book I published decades ago is among the 183,000 titles in one of the data sets used to train artificial intelligence systems and, by extension, the capacity of various programs to write whatever they’re prompted to write.
Unlike many writers, however, I’m not bothered by this (unauthorized) use of Stung: The Incredible Obsession of Brian Molony. And that’s for a number of reasons. I understand the copyright issue and the consent objection, but I also know that my own writing often borrows from, and builds on, the work of others in ways that fall short of plagiarism but nonetheless owe a debt to those others — a debt usually unacknowledged. Ultimately, in visual art, music, and writing, everything is grist for someone else’s artistic mill. The tech companies are just doing at scale, and now in public view, what we all do.
Writers are magpies, gathering shiny words and ideas to add to their own, then assembling them into unique constructions. When I was working on Stung, I read widely on several subjects — banking, casinos, addiction — noting useful thoughts, insights, even turns of phrase. No doubt some of them found their way into my book, though I could not now identify what in those pages is fully “original”— a phrase or aperçu risen whole from my mind — and what was derived from something “borrowed.”
Besides, everything about my life and work (as revealed by my computer and my phone) has long since been harvested, scraped, plundered — whatever the proper verb is — and turned into data that’s commercialized the same way that magazine subscription information was before the internet supplanted print.
Using sentences I’ve strung together to help teach a so called large language model to string its own sentences together seems little different than, say, using someone else’s video clip to demonstrate why asking open-ended questions is a good strategy when conducting an interview. I know that parts of my book have been copied (without permission) and used in criminology courses. Rather than feeling hard done by, I’ve felt kind of flattered.
Another reason I’m not perturbed is that we’re dealing here with a minor skirmish in a major war being fought on many fronts. The laws, rules, and regulations that shape our lives are generally formulated by wealthy people who are funded, directly and indirectly, by even wealthier ones. (Can I get a Booyah! for the billionaires who’ve enriched and corrupted Clarence Thomas?) The ultimate effect of most of those laws, rules, and regulations — including those that weaken copyright protection — is further enrichment of the rich. Trickle up economics is on full display these days, and so is dispossession among the unhoused, the hungry, and the hopeless.
It seems an ominous portent that Jeff Bezos banks millions a day sunbathing on his yacht while workers in Amazon warehouses scrounge in dumpsters, sleep in their cars, and are berated for taking too long in the loo. Hollywood actors on popular syndicated shows get residual cheques for $6.18 while studio heads earn eight or nine figures a year. Spotify executives get salaries in the millions for streaming music that generates pocket change for most musicians.
One lesson of history is that disenfranchised people eventually get so desperate that they’ll trade away their liberty and even their lives in pursuit of fairness. Consider Venezuelans climbing onto freight trains heading to the U.S. border; American autoworkers fearful that Chinese EVs will cost them their jobs; the self-described Freedom Convoy that disrupted Ottawa; long lineups at food banks; desperate Africans drowning in the Mediterranean; and the “Fuck Trudeau” bumper sticker on a neighbour’s pickup. Even writers ticked off that their work has been misappropriated are among these symptoms of a larger problem. I’m not sure a multi-year class-action lawsuit, even if successful, is a worthwhile way to address it.
Finally, generative AI is transforming the world and proving as helpful to writers as to anyone else. I fed the above paragraphs into ChatGPT and prompted it to suggest other reasons why an author might not be overly concerned that their book had been one of many thousands used to improve generative AI. Here’s a lightly annotated version of what it spat out:
1. Promotion and Exposure. Having your work used to train AI models can potentially lead to increased visibility and promotion of your book. People may be curious to explore the source material that influenced these models. (Not likely.)
2. Preservation of Work. AI models can help preserve literary works for future generations. If your book is used in AI training, it contributes to the digital archive of human knowledge. (I suppose so.)
3. Innovation and Creativity. By allowing AI to learn from your work, it may inspire novel and unexpected applications or interpretations that could be seen as a form of homage to your writing. (Yeah, right.)
4. Literary Analysis. Scholars and researchers can use AI-powered tools to gain insights into literary trends, styles, and themes, which can contribute to a deeper understanding of your work and its place in the literary canon. (That’s really stretching it.)
5. Collaborative Potential. The use of AI in creative writing can potentially lead to collaboration between human authors and AI systems. (Now you’re talking.)
6. Larger Issues. Concerns about copyright and AI usage pale in comparison to issues like income inequality, environmental challenges, and social justice. Focusing on these larger problems may feel more impactful. (You’re telling me what I just told you.)
It’s a grave new world. Climate change is a blossoming catastrophe. Droughts and fires and famine are spreading year by year. The AI takeover, like the global flood of refugees, is irreversible. In the long run, I suspect, it will make a relatively few people at the winning companies very rich and a whole lot of other people poorer.
For this writer, at least, the immediate benefits of AI seem considerable (and its limitations evident). Yes, my permission should have been obtained, and yes, who do those bastards think they are? But whether I’m owed an apology and $0.0012 for the unauthorized use of my book is a question I’ll leave to others. I’ve got a couple of deadlines this week.
Gary Ross edits and writes from Galiano Island, British Columbia.