The Authors Guild and a number of well-known writers have brought a class action against OpenAI and its various subsidiary corporations and partnerships alleging violations of copyright law in its use of materials to develop its large language models (LLMs), including ChatGPT.
For eight years I made my living as the primary legal editor of a publication that covered class actions and while that was some years back, I still know a lot about the subject. So I read through the complaint — you can find it here in PDF form — and have some thoughts.
Here’s the court record if you want to look up more information.
First of all, this action was brought by a very sophisticated and prominent firm of class action lawyers, Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein. Headquartered in San Francisco, the firm has been a major player in complex litigation since 1972, handling among other things some of the major tobacco cases, litigation over the Exxon Valdez, and other major product liability and class actions.
The other firm in the case, Cowan, DeBaets, Abrahams & Sheppard, is very experienced in copyright and technology law, according to their website.
Secondly, the case was brought in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Given the number of publishers located in New York, that’s an obvious place to bring an action related to copyright. It’s assigned to Judge Sidney H. Stein, who was appointed by Bill Clinton.
A quick google search indicates that Judge Stein has handled a number of copyright cases.
Thirdly, this suit is only against OpenAI (in its many legal forms) and over ChatGPT and the other versions of that software. Given that there are other companies doing the same thing, I have no doubt that more suits will follow.
Fourth, this case is strictly over violations of copyright law in using work by authors of fiction. The proposed class includes works of fiction covered by registered copyrights that have sold at least 5,000 copies and that were used in programming the LLMs.
Again, this leaves out a lot of copyrighted materials that could be the subject of other suits, including nonfiction and books that sold fewer copies but were still used in developing the software.
And fifth, because they’ve restricted the case to books with properly registered copyrights, they can seek statutory damages based on violation of copyright law. That allows them to get around a major problem in class actions of a huge number of class members with very different actual damages. Continue reading “The Authors Guild Class Action Against OpenAI”…