Generative AI and copyright: "artificial culture must not follow the sad path of junk food".

In an article for "Le Monde", digital economy expert Vincent Lorphelin proposes that publishers of generative AI should pay a royalty to the authors of the content they train on.

Musicians, photographers, screenwriters, writers, journalists and programmers are up in arms against ChatGPT and other generative artificial intelligences (genAIs), which train on their works without their authorization or remuneration. Petitions, strikes and lawsuits are flourishing.

The IAG publishers' camp, on the other hand, questions the legitimacy of authors claiming rights if the artificial works do not resemble the original works. They invoke freedom of learning, inspiration and style. A timely reminder that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that Google's digitization of books constituted "fair use" and that "Google Books provided significant public benefits", justifying not remunerating authors.

In Washington, the Senate and the Copyright Office have taken up the issue, but history is almost written. The general public will prefer the magic of free genAIs to the protests of rights holders, as in the early days of online music exchanges, despite the admonitions of the Hadopi watchdog.

Loss of originality and diversity

We might evoke the early days of photography, when Charles Baudelaire vainly protested against its artistic use. We'll argue that competition with the Chinese means that innovation must prevail over "corporatist demands". A few cosmetic concessions, such as allowing authors to prohibit IAGs from using their works, will complete the return to normality.

However, this scenario takes us straight into sub-culture. Music platforms are already inundated with artificial tracks. Large image databases are fed at a rate of three artificial images for every two authored ones. Yet 90% of the Internet's information stock is less than two years old. As the pace accelerates, the majority of content will soon be artificial.

IAG will feed on its own content, the quality of which will be sorted by the traces of interest left on platforms like TikTok. The loss of originality and diversity will match the gains in productivity, and artificial culture will follow the sad path of junk food.

Inspired by Beaumarchais' mechanism

Elon Musk, head of Tesla and X, warns of an "existential" threat to human survival. Beyond the outrageous style he's known for, we need to anticipate the day when everyone will think that creativity isn't just for humans. The feeling of humanity's decline in the face of machines will then join and amplify ecological pessimism.

Is it still possible to reverse this trend? To begin with, we need to remember that the cultural exception is a truly French invention, and recall the mechanism devised by Beaumarchais at the time of the Revolution to remunerate authors: as they did not have the means to identify all the uses of their works, intermediary companies were needed to detect them, collect a share of the revenue and redistribute it.

Today, this is what enables a musician to receive remuneration when his song is played on a radio station on the other side of the world. France has retained its leadership in collective management. It was also the first to work for the European directive on copyright, then to transpose it, and to obtain remuneration from platforms for extracts from press articles. Its cultural clout means it can keep the genAI at bay while the American debate is hot.

Proportional remuneration

A simple solution would be to extend the principle applied to nightclubs, whereby a percentage of their sales is deducted and paid back to musicians. All that would need to be done would be to define the fair royalty rate to be applied to IAGs and pay it back to the authors. The economist Ernst Fehr, for example, estimates the value contributed by news agencies to Google Search, the forerunner of the IAG, at 14%. To take a more established comparison, 15% is the rate retained by oil-producing countries on the price per barrel.

We've said enough times that intellectual property is the oil of the 21st century, so let's take a leaf out of our book! To be fair, the distribution of this collection requires a mechanism specific to IAGs. A work may be essential to an genAI, but its direct exploitation may be mediocre. MEPs have already decided that genAIs will have to publish a "detailed summary of use" of primary works. All that remains is to specify the content of this summary.

Blockchain technologies and new metadata standards make it possible to authenticate properties and measure their relative usefulness. That's all the content needs to allow for proportional remuneration of authors. Their properties will become as liquid as silver became in the 19th century, and the trajectory of the IAG will finally right itself towards a more desirable future.