Big Tech’s Legal-Shield Promises Are All About Keeping Customers In-House

Can artificial intelligence companies really offer customers legal shields for any copyright disputes over content their AI makes?

Photo of ChatGPT open on a mobile screen
Photo by Mojahid Mottakin via Unsplash

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Maybe the bots don’t have us covered. 

The companies offering AI tools have promised they would bear the cost of any legal burden arising from copyright disputes over the content their tools produce. However, analysis from the Financial Times shows that their protection only goes so far.

Protection Racket

The FT found that legal shield promises by Amazon, Microsoft, and Google only apply if the user doesn’t alter the platforms’ AI. If the user even slightly tinkered with the chatbots  — to customize it, for example — the legal protection would be voided. Crucially, the cloud platforms only protect their own tools, so you can’t use Amazon servers with a Google AI image-generator and expect Amazon to help if somebody spins up a fake Picasso.

“There is a growing backdrop of IP infringement actions being taken against leading technology vendors,” Akber Datoo, member of the UK Law Society’s Technology and Law Committee, told The Daily Upside. “For now, it appears that there is little direct action against the users (as opposed to the vendors) of the tools, although that may be on the horizon. Discussions with corporates on their use of generative AI consistently shows that the IP-related legal risk regarding its use is their biggest concern.”

The promises of legal protection seem like a play to make sure clients stay in-house, but cloud services aren’t the only ones selling it: 

  • OpenAI and Adobe have made similar promises, and OpenAI even requires users to be a commercial customer to benefit from its “copyright shield.” If you used the free version of Chat-GPT, then Sam Altman simply isn’t your white knight.
  • Getty Images also offered support against lawsuits for anyone who used its generative AI image-maker. Meanwhile, Getty is itself suing generative AI company Stability AI, so it’s kind of playing both sides.

Datoo also thinks these promises are meant as a deterrent, as going up against Silicon Valley heavyweights and their sizable pockets is more daunting than targeting an individual user. Plus, it gives the vendors something of an escape route. “The indemnities give the technology providers control over the way in which the defense to any IP claims are run,” said Datoo.  

What Goes In Must Come Out: The biggest AI copyright lawsuits so far focus on what goes into an AI model, not what comes out. While those lawsuits unfurl, OpenAI is actively lobbying the UK government to exempt it from copyright law on the basis that it would be “impossible to train today’s leading AI models without using copyrighted materials,” as the company said in a statement to a UK government committee, per The Telegraph’s reporting.