AI Generated Art: A Pixel is Worth a Thousand Lawsuits
By Barbara Engstrom, Executive Director
During the height of the pandemic and the insanity of the 2020 election I sought out things that were peaceful and calming. One of usual my moments of Zen was looking at my friend Ward’s YouTube channel where he posts a short clip of himself doing a “fast and loose” painting each day. It is very meditative to see the process of him turning a photograph into a painting. The paintings soften the edges of the photographs, but at the same time make bring the subject matter to life.
Recently I read an article  about how AI art generators such as Stable Diffusion and MidJourney are impacting artists’ ability to make a living. For artists who are sought after, AI generators can simply use that person’s name and create an image “in the style of” that artist. The article recounted the experience of Greg Rutkowski. His art features detailed, moody medieval scenes with dragons and other magical elements and is popular with fantasy fiction authors for book covers. AI art generators train on vast datasets of art from a wide variety of online places. As AI learns artists’ styles, a person’s name such as Greg Rutkowski can be used as shorthand to create artwork that is eerily imitative of his style.
“These databases were built without any consent, any permission from artists,” Mr. Rutkowski said.
Since the generators came out, Mr. Rutkowski said he has received far fewer requests from first-time authors who need covers for their fantasy novels. Meanwhile, Stability AI, the company behind Stable Diffusion, recently raised $101 million from investors and is now valued at over $1 billion. 
Posting artwork online is now a double-edged sword for artists like Greg Rutkowski. He needs to post his images in order to market his work but in doing so, he is providing more information for the A.I. art generator juggernaut to profit off his style and cut him out of the loop.
A University of Chicago computer science professor and his team of researchers are studying ways to help artists protect their work and business model. Professor Ben Zhao spear-headed a project called Glaze which allows artists to use a cloaking system that adds “almost imperceptible “perturbations” to each artwork it’s applied to — changes that are designed to interfere with AI models’ ability to read data on artistic style — and make it harder for generative AI technology to mimic the style of the artwork and its artist. Instead, systems are tricked into outputting other public styles far removed from the original artwork.” Professor Zhao’s Glaze Project website allows users to download the free Glaze app to add cloaking to individual works of art. https://glaze.cs.uchicago.edu/
Reading about this got me thinking about my friend Ward Spring and the calming presence of his online art displays. Selfishly, I hoped that he wasn’t considering taking down his videos. I reached out to Ward to hear his take on theft of style by AI art generators and projects like Glaze which are trying to help protect artists. Ward’s view is interesting because he has a foot in both worlds. He does his daily painting posts, but his day job is in computer coding. Here’s a bit of what he had to say:
BE: When did you start painting?
WS: As a young kid I always had this image of myself painting as an old man, but I hadn’t really tried. My father had painted his whole life as a hobbyist. In 2020, when he was 88 years old, he was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, a terminal disease. I live in Seattle and he was in Idaho. With the pandemic shutdown we decided to paint together using video calls. Dad sent me his painting supplies and we started painting through video calls every morning at 7AM. My home studio has several web-cams so we could see each other and he could see what I was doing. I would paint and he would coach. As his illness progressed, he grew weaker but insisted on doing our daily video calls. We painted nearly every day from August 2020 through September 2021 when he grew too weak to go on. He passed October 13, 2021. I have kept painting “almost daily” in his memory and because it’s so much fun.
BE: Why did you decide to post your work online?
WS: I decided to upload my art to Twitter to have a record of my progress in an easy to share system. I started uploading the videos to YouTube since I had them from the video calls. If you watch some of the early ones you’ll see my dad. It’s now such a habit I’ll keep doing it. I do go back and watch videos of paintings that turned out better, or in a direction I want to develop. So, these online efforts are really cheap ways for me to store my stuff for myself. I have also ended up making friends with people from other countries because of these social networks.
BE: As you note, your paintings are available on both YouTube and Twitter. Do either of those platforms have any system to help you protect your copyright in your artwork?
WS: LOL, not that I know of. I accept my work isn’t worth stealing, so I am not worried. I’d find someone stealing my work as evidence I’m getting better.
BE: Ah, you sell yourself short. I find your videos/ paintings joyful to see/watch. I noticed that there are no still image files on either YouTube account. Was this a deliberate choice? Does having only video images of your work make it more difficult for other people or bots to capture your work?
WS: I have medium resolution stills on Twitter. Seriously, I haven’t thought of anyone stealing my art. If something I created ended up getting famous because someone used it, I’d consider that a win.
BE: What are your thoughts on AI generated art? As an artist, does knowing that there may be other people monetizing your creative work make you reconsider posting your work on-line?
WS: I have only looked at a few AI art pieces and AI generated art videos online. At first, I was jealous at how bizarre AI art was, wishing I could do stuff like that myself. But now I have come full circle and think I’ll stick to using my eyes and hands, and Dad’s art supplies, to see what I can create myself. I can’t imagine ever making much money from my art, which is very liberating. I can do whatever I want without the pressure of “being good”. I paint for myself.
BE: Do you just assume that your work has been uploaded into AI art generator data sets? Is there any way that you can know for sure?
WS: I haven’t thought about my art being sampled or used by anyone else. If someone does, I would love to see the result.
BE: Have you heard of the Glaze Project https://glaze.cs.uchicago.edu/? It’s a research project out of the University of Chicago that is meant to help prevent AI from mimicking an artist’s style. Would you ever consider using a tool like that?
WS: I haven’t heard of the Glaze Project. I’m so new to painting (I’ve done about 800 pieces so far) I haven’t developed a style that I am aware of. To be honest, I would be interested in seeing AI art done in my style.
BE: What questions do you have about the legal implications of AI generated art?
WS: Modern musicians sample other people’s songs all the time. We all can pick out these sound samples as we hear them. Visual art is also “sampled”. Whenever someone creates a new visual piece, even without actually digitally sampling, folks inevitably say they see Picasso, Wyeth, Watterson, Groening, etc. Will there be court cases now with jurors looking at AI art pieces and deciding if this piece is too much like that piece? The brush strokes are too “Van Gogh”? It seems farfetched now but if millions of dollars are at stake it may happen.
BE: Any final thoughts?
WS: I, for one, welcome our new AI overlords.
BE: You’re always funny Ward, thanks for giving your thoughts!
As with many issues involving rapidly changing technology, the law has not caught up with the real-world implications of AI generated art. There are already a raft of lawsuits on these issues and surely many more to come on questions such as: Are A.I. art generators violating the artists copyrights? Is the “style” of an artist something that can be copyrighted? Are works that are generated by A.I. eligible for copyright protection?
Want to Learn More About Our How the Law Treats Our New AI Overlords?
If you’d like to research the intersections of artificial intelligence and intellectual property visit our website at www.kcll.org or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more about available resources at the King County Law Library.
And please visit www.wardspring.com to find your own moment of Zen.
 See Kashmir Hill, This Tool Could Protect Artist from A.I. Generated Art That Steals Their Style, New York Times (Feb 13, 2023)
 See, Natasha Lomas, Glaze Protects Art from Prying AIs, Tech Crunch (March 17, 2023)