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Hollywood writers’ strike: Writers are fighting to have AI use banned from screenplays

Hollywood writers are on strike in a dispute over pay (Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images)
Hollywood writers are on strike in a dispute over pay (Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images)

We all know the current Hollywood writers’ strike is about pay, but it might surprise you to find out that it’s also about artificial intelligence.

One of the key issues in dispute between the Writers’ Guild of America (WGA) and movie studios is whether AI can be used to speed up the process of writing screenplays for movies and television.

Many have been worried about robots taking over our jobs for the past decade but, in many cases, this hasn’t happened yet.

However, it is clearly an ever-present worry for up-and-coming screenwriters, claims the WGA, which alleges that movie studios want to discuss using the technology at least once a year.

The argument, as always, boils down to money, in particular, looking at the way credit is assigned when a screenplay is written, and therefore how much the writer should be paid.

If a screenplay contains a lot of “source material”, it means it is based on an idea that might have come from a novel, another film, a newspaper article, or a play. However, if a writer produces a story, screenplay, sketch, or treatment based on original ideas, it is considered to be “literary material”.

Since the idea is not an original one, the writer is not allowed to claim they wrote it, meaning they are credited with having written the screenplay and are paid only 75 per cent of the writing fee, as opposed to the full fee for having completed an original piece of work.

But, if an AI system like ChatGPT were asked to write a screenplay, it would do so by using data it has been fed from all over the internet. So can anything written by AI be considered to be original literary material and how would you assign credit?

“It is important to note that AI software does not create anything. It generates a regurgitation of what it’s fed,” said the Writers’ Guild of America West on Twitter.

“If it’s been fed both copyright-protected and public domain content, it cannot distinguish between the two. Its output is not eligible for copyright protection, nor can an AI software program sign a certificate of authorship.”

The guild wants to ensure that writers cannot be assigned AI-generated material and told to adapt the content into work. It also wants to ensure that movie studios cannot claim that AI is responsible for literary material.

Jeff Sneider, of movie industry watcher magazine Above the Line, citing multiple insider sources, says that nearly every Hollywood studio is now exploring the possibility of using AI to generate movie and TV scripts based on intellectual property that is in the public domain.

“AI has seemingly become the defining issue of this strike, as the very profession of film and television writing is at stake, as is the future of the guild itself,” he wrote.

“The uncomfortable truth is that real artists aren’t sweating AI, it’s the lower-level writers who worry that it could replace them.”

Analyst firm Gartner’s global head of research Chris Howard says Hollywood’s writers are right to be concerned that generative AI could be used to reduce the cost of movie production by creating script drafts that are just “adequate enough”.

“However, smart studios will realise that human sensibilities are not so easily replicated, and will engage screenwriters in a new way,” he told the Standard.

“The big unknown is whether people will accept AI as an integrated part of their lives or will push back on an AI-mediated life. Geoffrey Hinton is right to raise the philosophical-societal flag and we need to have an open discussion about that and how we develop policy to ensure people-centered development of technology.”