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Association of Illustrators: Issues around AI Have Alarmed Creatives Everywhere



As the UK government pauses a controversial copyright exception related to AI text-to-image tech, the Association of Illustrators discusses the detrimental effect that data mining has on artists’ livelihoods with LBB’s Zoe Antonov

Association of Illustrators: Issues around AI Have Alarmed Creatives Everywhere

Talk about artificial intelligence and the creative industries has been gaining remarkable traction since the beginning of 2023. Although AI and automation is used in many areas of our lives, to the point that we don’t even notice it, as AI image and text generation improves it has thrown up a whole bunch of moral, financial, legal and existential questions for those working in the creative industries. And it’s proving divisive, with some creatives embracing this as a new tool to supercharge their work while others see it plundering and plagiarising their IP. 

AI text-to-image models and platforms such as DALL-E 2, Midjourney, and Stable Diffusion, scrape data from images and texts found on the internet - something called ‘text and data mining’. And although currently there is no right in UK law for AI platforms to do this without the explicit copyright owner’s permission, the UK government recently entered talks for an exception to copyright when it comes to text and data mining.

When the government stated the new proposal for the exception, the Association of Illustrators (AoI) joined forces with the Association of Photographers (AoP) and representatives from picture libraries, with the goal to meet directly with the Intellectual Property Office (who deal with this area) in order to emphasise the impact such an exception would have on those licensing images and its detriment on their livelihoods. Derek Brazell, publications and membership manager at the Association of Illustrators, explains the full scope of the possible exception and the harm it could do to artists showcasing their work on the internet:

“If this exception was to pass into law, it will mean that creators and rights holders of images will not be able to prevent their work from being scraped by bots for data, unless it was protected behind a paywall, which clearly would not be practical for image makers who want potential commissioners to see their work in the easiest way possible.” This is why, the AoI got to work swiftly, to gather evidence to present to the government’s Intellectual Property office. “We set up a survey to gain useful data,” says Derek. “Not too surprisingly the respondents were overwhelmingly against the proposed exception, with 97% stating that they were opposed to their illustrations being used for artificial intelligence or machine learning purposes without their permission.”

He continues, “Interestingly, 43% of respondents would be open to licensing their illustrations as data for AI or for machine learning purposes, if offered an appropriate fee. Illustrators are familiar with secondary licensing of their work from DACS Payback (for photocopying and other uses) and Public Lending Rights (library payments for loans).”

As a result of the collective efforts of the associations, on the 1st of February, this Wednesday, at a parliamentary debate on the ‘Potential impact of AI on intellectual property rights for creative workers’, George Freeman MP confirmed that the option for an exception for copyright was in fact, not supported, according to the evidence received and the views voiced by the sector. “As a result,” says Derek, “the plans to proceed were ‘paused’. This is good news for the moment, but more consultation with all sides is to come.”

In terms of the Association of Illustrators’ official statement on the usage of AI, Derek explains that due to the novelty of the situation and the extreme speed at which it unravels, along with other creative-supporting organisations, the AoI is conscious that it reacts to it while being aware of possible changes. For now, he for sure states that ‘competitions need to be aware of the situation’ and the AoI has confirmed that “entries to the World Illustration Awards produced using AI text-to-image generating software or platforms are not eligible to be entered”. Similar conclusion was reached by the New York Society of Illustrators. “We can’t support the use of AI while outputs may infringe creators copyright and until there are fair guidelines in place relating to the data used,” says Derek. 

There are, however, some nuances to the topic. For example, illustrators and other creatives themselves rely on technology and its onward march over the years has helped enormously. Other applications of artificial intelligence, such as programmes that make it easier to mask or remove elements of an image, are incredibly useful for creators. 

“Illustrators certainly do not reject technology,” explains Derek. “On the contrary - they embrace progress. And a large percentage of them produce all their artwork digitally on programmes such as Procreate, Photoshop and Illustrator. They are conscious that AI image generation technology is now out there, but also wish to ensure that their careers and livelihoods can be maintained.” Derek stands behind the stance that what illustrators don’t want is their IP infringed upon through their artwork being used without consent or compensation to train AI, which may inevitably lead to the creation of images that take away or replace real peoples’ commissions.

Aside from the IP issues around scraping and replicating images, there are also implications around  personal style, something that any image creator works hard to nurture throughout their creative career. “This is an illustrator’s visual voice, their calling card, and the reason that commissioning clients come specifically to them. AI platforms that allow a user to include within the text prompt, the phrase ‘in the style of (artist’s name)’ means that images may be generated that have mimicked that artist’s style.” 

Artists all over the world are aware of the benefits of technology in art, as well as of the inevitable development of AI text-to-image technology, which is here to stay and to possibly become a new way of creating as a friend, not an enemy. But however likely it is that AI takes the form of an ‘additional tool’ in the illustrator and animator kit, as Derek puts it, problems are likely to keep arising, until clear guidelines are set in place.

Derek also explains that AoI is President of the European Illustrators Forum (EIF), which is made up of 17 illustration organisations, and from feedback from members, the issues around AI have alarmed creatives everywhere, not just in the UK. “The EIF will be presenting an event on the issues around the topic at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in March. We’re also in contact with the Concept Art Association in the US, who have been instigators of much of the debate in the States.”

Indeed, in the United States a trio of illustrators (Sarah Andersen, Kelly McKernan, and Karla Ortiz) are filing a class action lawsuit against AI image generators. And stock image library Getty is suing the makers of Stable Diffusion.

It remains to be seen how different parts of the creative industries will react to the proposed free reign of AI over copyright. Will advertising, for example, protect the artists it works with or will it prefer the shorter route to success? “It is currently a talking point and will be a novelty for a while,” admits Derek. “Which advertising has already started to use, for example in campaigns such as Deliveroo on Instagram. However, we anticipate it may settle down to be used in other ways. I’m not sure that areas of the creative industries would campaign to make it as freely available as possible.” After all, commissioners of images come to illustrators for specific skills and approaches, as well as their own style, so ‘it is likely that bespoke commissions will be a preferred option for many art directors,’ reminds us Derek.

He leaves us with this: “We believe that it’s really important that explicit permission and informed consent should be required from creators/rights holders of images for use of any digital data included in a dataset to train AI. And if it is consented to, this permission should include the right to compensation for the use. The investment that illustrators put into their careers is huge, creatively and economically, and that shouldn’t be exploited for others’ gain.”

Watch this space as LBB keeps up to date with the unravelling news around AI usage in the creative industries.

Image by Harriet Noble
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LBB Editorial, Fri, 03 Feb 2023 17:47:26 GMT