Generative AI is the final nail in intellectual property's coffin
WARNING: TRESPASSERS WILL BE YELLED AT LOUDLY AND TOLD TO FEEL ASHAMED OF THEMSELVES
Owning something means holding authority over it and others’ access to it.
The authority that backs modern ownership of property is provided by a social contract dictating that everyone may possess property, and others may not steal it. Usually, a version of this social contract is embodied in a formal government which enforces a rule of law. If you violate others’ right to ownership, you lose your own.
Most physical property can be protected in two ways:
Doing stuff ahead of time to make it harder to steal; for instance:
Gold ingots can be secured in a safe.
Car keys can be kept in your front pocket so they are harder to pickpocket.
Government facilities for studying aliens can be placed in the middle of Nevada surrounded by barbed-wire fences and armed guards.
Committing to do bad things to the violator after they have violated; for instance:
Intellectual property (IP) is much harder to protect, so it’s also harder to own. Ownership is about control, and IP is very hard to control. IP is intangible. It consists of ideas, stories, characters, designs, images — but these are slippery. Most of the time, displaying a piece of IP publicly is all it takes to make countless “copies” of it in people’s minds.3
Walt Disney Corporation “owns” Mickey Mouse, according to the law. And yet, I can take pencil and paper right now and draw a copy of the character:
So how exactly does Disney “own” Mickey? In order to “own” intellectual property, you really only have two options:
Rely on post-hoc punishment.
Keep it secret.
If you are an entertainment company, only (1) is really viable. (2) doesn’t work because your entire business is built on sharing your IP with viewers, who will then internalize copies of it.
Historically, relying on (1) has worked fine for companies like Disney. They’ve had access to enough power and authority to crack down on anyone who egregiously violates their copyright. Small operations might slip through the cracks—getting rid of all bootleg products is infeasible—but generally, the only entity making lots of money off of Mickey Mouse has been Disney.
But Disney’s control has been slipping for a long time now. As technology progresses, it’s become easier to distribute copies of their IP. They’ve kept ahead of it by hiring more lawyers, suing more people, and bribing more legislators. But this won’t work forever.
Imagine it’s the year 1937, and you want to “steal” Disney’s intellectual property. That new Snow White movie of theirs is a huge hit4; you want to profit off it. What are your options?
Well, supposing you could steal a print of the film, you might make and sell illicit copies of it—but you’d need specialized skills and equipment to process that film, as well as buyers who actually want to buy it. Maybe you could just sell framed paintings of the seven dwarves instead—except now you need a way to print those paintings en masse. You could sell your own original Snow White fan-fiction, but that would take time and effort—both to create it and to distribute it.
The point is, creating and distributing bootleg Snow White content isn’t easy. It takes significant effort. And the moment you made any significant money with it, Disney would cease-and-desist you anyways.
Fast forward to 1999. A lot has changed. Digital media exists now, as does the Internet. You want to “steal” other people’s IP? Cool. You can use Napster to download MP3s of a hundred songs. Simple as that.
You’re one of millions of users, too—so there’s little chance that the record label will ever come after you, specifically. Heck, you might even get away with selling your illicit MP3s, as long as you can remain anonymous.
Digital piracy is a thing now, and it’s unstoppable. Before long, nearly all popular movies, books, images, and songs are pirate-able. And yet, intellectual property is still around, and more enforced than ever!
Turns out companies like Disney are doing great, because liberating the distribution of IP isn’t enough to overwhelm their control over their property. Most rich first-world people (the most lucrative type of people to sell things to) seem content to follow The Rules and only consume officially distributed copies of Disney movies. They pay for convenience, and the law is still powerful enough to ensure that Disney's official offerings are the most convenient mode of consumption! Sure, thar be pirates5, but the total revenue loss they represent is pitiful compared to the dragon’s hoard from official sales.
Bootleggers profiting off of unlicensed usage of Disney’s characters and stories are still a threat, though. However, the scale of Disney’s control is still enormous compared to the scale of these bootleggers’ operations, so they remain a mere nuisance for now. Disney is still the only one making billions off of Mickey Mouse.
Now, fast forward to the present day. 2023. Streaming services are popular. There’s a new billion-dollar blockbuster at least once a year. And a Brand New Thing is all the rage—Stable Diffusion6. A neural network that can turn a text into images, and do it well. And it’s free for anyone to use on their own computers.
This is where things get interesting. Up till now, Disney’s been able to maintain control because the amount of resistance they’ve faced has been manageable. At the end of the day, the most damage anyone can do is mass-distribute digital copies of the bytes that Disney “owns”. Other ventures— like bootleg merch and fanfictions—take time and effort to produce, which significantly rate-limits how many of these violations Disney must deal with. It’s easy to redistribute bytes, but it’s hard to make honest-to-god ripoffs7.
But now, we’re seeing the beginnings of a world where that’s no longer true. As generative AI becomes more and more capable, it will slowly do to creation what the Internet did to distribution—it will make it easy. Sure, Disney may be able to sue a thousand people a day for infringing on their copyrights, but what about 10,000? 100,000? What about a million? What about a billion?
What happens when a new Disney film comes out, and bootleggers can create and upload a thousand entirely unique variations of it within 24 hours? What happens when some of those variations are significantly better than what Disney put out, meaning that Disney is now in direct competition with a bootleg product? Normally, they’d just throw lawyers and bribes at the problem, but that doesn’t work anymore. For every bootlegger they catch, two more spring up in their place.
Okay, so if bootleggers can do this with generative AI, why can Disney? Well they can. But it won’t matter, because as the commodification of creativity continues, the monetary value of that creativity asymptotically approaches zero.
It’s about to be easy to make ripoffs of anything en masse, and it will not be feasible to deal with the sheer volume of high quality ripoffs that will exist.
Intellectual properties been dying for a while now8, and generative AI is the final nail in its coffin. Do I think Disney will go out of business because of this? Probably not, not anytime soon at least. But I do think they’re doomed in the long run—because you can’t own and idea and share it with a billion people. That’s just silly.
When anyone can create and distribute anything to anyone, the product of those creations becomes (monetarily) worthless.
Thanks for reading.
If you’d like to see other stuff I made with my brain, I released an EP a few weeks ago. It has a space shanty in it! If that sounds fun, feel free to give it a listen.
Commentary? What’s a “commentary”??
because fun fact! we live in the stone age apparently!!1!1 we are dumb apes. ooga booga.
Talking about “copies” in the context of ideas is kind of weird. I argue that copying isn’t limited to physically duplicating materials. The act of telling someone something imparts them some ownership over that information as long as they remember it. You’ve created a kind of “copy” of it in their mind, as they are now capable, to some degree, of reproducing it or sharing it with others.
Adjusted for inflation, it’s still in the top 20 highest grossing films of all time. 86 years later.
yo ho fiddle dee-dee
Stable Diffusion on its own isn’t enough to kick off the revolution I’m talking about in this article, but it’s a sign of a times. We’re single-digit years away from pictures, videos, audio, and text being consistently synthesizable at superhuman quality on a laptop for the cost of electricity.
Even the lowest-effort bootleg products aren’t infinitely scalable. T-shirt must be printed shipped, and even if that part is automated, those automated processes can be shot down by regulators. Unlicensed toys need to be designed and manufactured.
The fact that we have to resort to incredibly fuzzy terms like “fair use” in the first place is a major red flag in my opinion. Intellectual property was never real, it was just enforceable—until now, anyway.