Does AI image generation infringe copyright? Getty thinks so

Stable Diffusion example image (Stability AI)
Stable Diffusion example image (Stability AI)

Stock photography and image provider Getty Images says it has “commenced legal proceedings” against Stability AI, which makes the text-to-image software Stable Diffusion.

This tool can generate digital images from any text prompt, such as “man wearing hat made from cheese” or “Lake Garda by moonlight” — anything you like.

Getty Images claims Stability AI “infringed intellectual property rights including copyright”, by using its database of images to train the AI.

It says Stability AI  “unlawfully copied and processed millions of images”, representing the breadth of content that goes into creating the kind of AI picture-generation software you may have encountered on social media recently.

These legal proceedings were taken to the “High Court of Justice in London”, according to Getty Images.

In an interview with The Verge, Getty Images CEO Craig Peters says the company sent a “letter before action” to Stability AI, to let them know the legal proceedings had begun.

However, we got in contact with Stability AI and a spokesperson told us, “We are still awaiting the service of any documents. Should we receive them, we will comment appropriately.

“Please know that we take these matters seriously. It is unusual that we have been informed about this intended legal action via the press,” they said.

How AI image-generation works

Such image-generation AIs are fed huge amounts of images and their associated metadata, which are tags that may tell you what the photo is of, where it was taken, and when.

In the Verge interview, Getty CEO Peters says, “We don’t believe this specific deployment of Stability’s commercial offering is covered by fair dealing in the UK or fair use in the US.”

The viral spread of these image-generation tools has understandably caused upset among artists and photographers. This software could put them out of a job, while being created, in part, using their work.

However, Getty Images’s argument is not one against the concept of these generative AIs. It says they have the “potential to stimulate creative endeavours”.

Its issue is that Stability AI did not acquire the licences other tech companies have bought, for the express purpose of training AIs. Getty Images says it has provided such licences to “leading technology innovators”.

Getty Images has a US headquarters in Seattle, but it is not yet clear whether the company also plans to start proceedings outside of the UK, too.