Universal Music Group vs the Machines

The legal spat between the Marvin Gaye estate and UK singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran is dominating the copyright headlines this week. A less glamorous but possibly more significant story lies in reports of music industry behemoth Universal Music Group’s attempts to clamp down on AI-generated music distributed via streaming platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music.

UMG is seeking to prevent AI content engines from learning how to ‘compose’ by scraping material under its copyright. The company, which controls roughly a third of the international music business, is concerned that AI bots are ‘scraping’ their songs to train themselves to create ‘sound-alike’ music in the style of a particular artist or composer.

Universal Music Publishing GmbH, Berlin.

AI-generated songs have been generating significant listener interest among streamers in recent months and UMG, home to artists including Taylor Swift and Elton John and which owns a very extensive classical music catalogue, has been active in ordering hosts to remove AI-generated content it believes is infringing on its rights.

A notable example is the AI-generated “Heart on My Sleeve” by TikTok user Ghostwriter977, which draws on musicians including Drake and The Weeknd. The song became a viral hit, racking up 230,000 plays on YouTube and more than 625,000 on Spotify before it was removed.

In an article published this week, London’s Financial Times quoted an unnamed source who said that UMG has been sending takedown requests “left and right” and published an excerpt from UMG email:

“We have become aware that certain AI systems might have been trained on copyrighted content without obtaining the required consents from, or paying compensation to, the rightsholders who own or produce the content … We will not hesitate to take steps to protect our rights and those of our artists.”

US industry publication Billboard quoted UMG CEO Lucien Grainge as saying that AI contributes to a glut of “poor-quality” content on streaming platforms, muddies search experiences for fans and creates music with “virtually no consumer appeal.”

“Any way you look at it, this oversupply, whether or not AI-created, is simply bad. Bad for artists. Bad for fans. And bad for the platforms themselves,” Grainge said.

As it stands, regulation is lagging far behind a rapidly evolving technology. No regulations currently exist that dictate on what material AI can or cannot ‘train’. While some argue that a license should be required because the AI’s output is based on pre-existing musical works, others maintain that using the data falls under the so-called ‘fair use’ exception in copyright law.

As it stands, AI-generated material largely lands outside copyright law. Just a few weeks ago, the US Copyright Office released new guidance on how to register artworks of all genres created with AI:

“In the case of works containing AI-generated material, the Office will consider whether the AI contributions are the result of ‘mechanical reproduction’ or instead of an author’s ‘own original mental conception, to which [the author] gave visible form.”

Under Australian law, works are afforded copyright protection only if the author is a human who has contributed “independent intellectual effort”. AI-based content engines do not currently have legal status and therefore works solely created by Artificial Intelligence are therefore not eligible for copyright in Australia.

It is, however, an infringement of copyright to digitally reproduce works without permission. So, were a musician or producer to make a digital copy of work to train an AI, that would require permission from the copyright holder.

Grimes. Photo supplied

While lawyers are sharpening their arguments either way, some artists are embracing the AI revolution.

In a series of tweets, the Canadian producer-songwriter and performer Grimes said she was open to her work being trawled by AI bots and is happy for her voice to be used as long as any royalties are split 50/50 with her.

“I’ll split 50 per cent royalties on any successful AI generated song that uses my voice,” wrote Grimes. “Same deal as I would with any artist I collab with. Feel free to use my voice without penalty. I have no label and no legal bindings.”

Grimes added: “I think it’s cool to be fused [with] a machine and I like the idea of open sourcing all art and killing copyright … We’re making a program that should simulate my voice well but we could also upload stems and samples for ppl [people] to train their own.”

Watch this space.

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