Graphic novel with AI-generated art gets unprecedented copyright

An AI system can't currently get a copyright—but what about the people who collaborate with them?
AI generated comic book artwork of alien planet's blue forest
The ethics on AI art keeps getting murkier and murkier. Kris Kashtanova

As interest grows for AI-assisted artwork programs like DALL-E, so do the controversies surrounding their legal and ethical implications. The newest example of this nebulous realm might be its thorniest yet. As Ars Technica and elsewhere reported yesterday, New York-based artist Kris Kashtanova claims to be the first known artist to receive a US copyright registration for Zayra of the Dawn, a graphic novel featuring latent diffusion AI-assisted artwork.

“I was open how it was made and put Midjourney on the cover page. It wasn’t altered in any other way. Just the way you saw it here,” Kashtanova wrote in an announcement posted to Instagram last week. “I tried to make a case that we do own copyright when we make something using AI. I registered it as visual arts work. My certificate is in the mail and I got the number and a confirmation today that it was approved.” Kashtanova also noted that they first got the idea to show that artists “do own copyright when we make something using AI” from a “friend lawyer.”

[Related: How DALL-E’s new outpainting feature works.]

Earlier this year, the US Copyright Office ruled against awarding copyrights to AI systems themselves. “The courts have been consistent in finding that non-human expression is ineligible for copyright protection,” the Office reasoned in February, citing previous cases involving attempts to copyright based on “divine inspiration,” as well as that time someone tried to secure copyright protection for a monkey selfie.

Right now, there is a big distinction between granting copyright solely to an AI learning system and granting the same licensing rights to a human who collaborated with an AI learning system on their project, as is the case right now with Kashtanova’s Zayra of the Dawn. That said, critics have already noted that the graphic novel’s title character bears more than a passing resemblance to the actress, Zendaya. Generative image AI programs often rely on celebrities for human references since there are so many widely available photos of them. This usually happens without said celebrities’ knowledge or consent.

[Related: Tips for using DALL-E mini, aka Craiyon.]

On September 21, Getty Images CEO Craig Peters announced that the company would no longer accept AI-generative artwork into its catalogue, citing concerns over copyright legality and privacy. “There are real concerns with respect to the copyright of outputs from these models and unaddressed rights issues with respect to the imagery, the image metadata and those individuals contained within the imagery,” Peters told The Verge at the time.