New York Times sues OpenAI and Microsoft for copyright infringement

The New York Times has sued OpenAI and Microsoft over the use of its content to train generative artificial intelligence and large-language model systems, a move that could see the company receive billions of dollars in damages.

The copyright infringement lawsuit, filed in a Manhattan federal court on Wednesday, claims that while the companies copied information from many sources to build their systems, they give New York Times content “particular emphasis” and “seek to free-ride on the Times’s massive investment in its journalism by using it to build substitutive products without permission or payment”.

The “unlawful use” of the paper’s “copyrighted news articles, in-depth investigations, opinion pieces, reviews, how-to guides, and more” to create artificial intelligence products “threatens The Times’s ability to provide that service”, the lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit contains an appeal to the “vital” importance of the Times’s independent journalism to democracy, arguing that it is “increasingly rare and valuable”.

The publisher’s lawsuit is the latest in a string of similar cases, including one brought by more than a dozen authors in September targeting the company for its use of their writing.

Language learning models have faced increasing scrutiny since they exploded in popularity in the past year, with news outlets in particular concerned that the tools will spread misinformation attributed to them and utilize their content with no incentive to click through to the original source. ChatGPT launched in November 2022 and amassed 100 million users in just two months. A year later, it had more than 100 million users per week.

ChatGPT’s parent company, OpenAI, which is owned by Microsoft, was last month roiled by internal conflict over the direction of the fast-growing company and whether to maintain its adherence to safety-first principles on which it was founded, or to follow a less-constrained strategy for growth.

The conflict resulted in the ousting of its outspoken CEO, Sam Altman, after which employees rallied for his return and he was successfully rehired. The turmoil, which focused on the leadership of the company as its tools develop more capabilities, did not address an intensifying battle between the providers of information used to train AI systems and the operators of the technology.

OpenAI has been sued over its use of copyrighted materials by fiction writers on multiple occasions, including in one ongoing class-action lawsuit. The Getty photo archive sued a separate AI firm over its use of its images in September.

The Times reported that its lawsuit came to fruition after an apparent breakdown in negotiations over the companies’ use of Times material. In the filing, the Times said it had approached the tech firms about the use of its intellectual property to explore “an amicable resolution”, including commercial agreements and “guardrails” around AI products – but the discussions had stalled.

The lawsuit also broaches the issue of AI “hallucinations”, typically false information that can be wrongly attributed to a source, that it said potentially damages the Times’s brand. It identified material on Microsoft’s Bing Chat that it claims was misidentified as Times content, including results for “the 15 most heart-healthy foods”. Twelve of those had not been mentioned in the Times story, the lawsuit claims.

The Times lawsuit does not contain a monetary claim, but says that OpenAI, valued at $80bn, and its partner Microsoft, valued at $2.8tn, should be held responsible for “billions of dollars in statutory and actual damages”.

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The suit also called on the companies to destroy any chatbot models and training data that use copyrighted material from the Times.

With tension growing over use of published materials to train ChatGPT, OpenAI has announced partnerships seeking to assuage concerns. Earlier this month, OpenAI announced a partnership with the German publishing giant Axel Springer to “enrich users’ experience with ChatGPT by adding recent and authoritative content on a wide variety of topics, and explicitly values the publisher’s role in contributing to OpenAI’s products”.

“With this partnership, ChatGPT users around the world will receive summaries of selected global news content from Axel Springer’s media brands,” Open AI said in a press release, adding that information on the system would “include attribution and links to the full articles for transparency and further information”.

“We want to explore the opportunities of AI empowered journalism – to bring quality, societal relevance and the business model of journalism to the next level,” said Mathias Döpfner, CEO of Axel Springer.

Representatives of OpenAI and Microsoft did not immediately respond to the Guardian’s request for comment.

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