What hurdles exist in a future where machines make music?

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AI-generated music and copyright law

Back in March, Warner Music made news when they announced a newly inked music distribution partnership with Endel, an app that produces music generated via artificial intelligence (AI). Warner Music and Endel plan to release 20 albums this year of “soundscapes.” These ambient, white noise pieces feature different themes like sleeping and focusing.

Who gets the songwriting credits for the music, though? In the end, though the AI wrote the music, Endel’s founder Oleg Stavitsky added all six of Endel’s employees as songwriters on 600 tracks. AI is a tool that humans can deploy for creative uses. However, once that creativity brushes with copyright law (like in the case of Endel and inevitably music down the road), there are significant questions and hurdles that creators and the courts will have to grapple with.

Who Owns the Copyright of the Music?

Though AI writing pieces of music is a new frontier in copyright law, code writing music is nothing new. Back in 1965, the U.S. Copyright Office published an annual report which featured a section on burgeoning computer technology. At the time, the copyright office received one claim for a composition written by a computer. The report points out that more instances of computer written music will come forward in the future.

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Given that computer written music was just a footnote back in 1965, it’s perhaps understandable that the current law is murky. And the reason the law is murky is that the landmark case for non-human authorship of work comes down to a monkey snapping a selfie.

You probably remember the picture of the crested macaque. A photographer set up a camera with a remote trigger and the monkey snapped a selfie of himself. The resulting court case determined that the monkey did not own the copyright to the photo, even though he took it himself.

Though Naruto et al v. David Slater deals with a human and a monkey, it illustrates the point about authorship when it comes to nonhuman creators. Who would own the copyright for a piece of AI-generated music? The AI or the programmers who created it? And as the current copyright law stands, there isn’t much in there about human creators vs. non-human creators. How the Endel deal changes or affects issues going forward is up to anyone’s guess.

AI Music that Mimics Musicians

Another probably less contentious scenario with the issue of AI music copyright is an AI program that directly mimics a current artist. Of course, if an AI blatantly copied a piece of music, there would be grounds for a lawsuit. Moreover, a program mimicking the style of a current artist wouldn’t raise concerns.

The larger issue is whether feeding an AI copyrighted music to create new music is allowable under current copyright law. Like most issues in the copyright field, the answer lies in a grey area. Under current copyright law, a person has to prove the infringing party was reasonably exposed to the work they are copying or stealing. An artist would have to prove and build a link that developers fed AI a specific song, a difficult standard to reach.