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Record Labels File $350M Copyright Lawsuit As AI Marches on Music Industry

Record Labels File $350M Copyright Lawsuit As AI Marches on Music Industry

Record Labels File 0M Copyright Lawsuit As AI Marches on Music Industry

There’ve been over 25 copyright infringement lawsuits filed against artificial intelligence companies from most corners of the creative industries. Groups that’ve sued include artists, authors and news publishers, among various others alleging mass theft of their copyrighted works to teach AI systems. Of those entities, record companies have taken the most aggressive stance thus far in trying to get out in front of the technology.

Only companies from the music industry have united to bring claims that urgently seek to block the AI firms from profiting off of the alleged infringement of their intellectual property. That trend continued on Monday when leading record labels sued two artificial intelligence startups over tools that allow users to make music based on existing songs.

In lawsuits filed in federal courts in New York and Massachusetts, the labels — led by Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music — accuse Suno AI and Uncharted Labs Inc., the developer of Udio AI, of illegally powering their AI systems on massive troves of copyrighted recordings. They seek injunctions that could force the companies to cease further infringement, which may include the destruction of models taught on their intellectual property, and damages of nearly $350 million.

Suno chief executive Mikey Shulman said in a statement that the company’s technology is “transformative” and is “designed to generate completely new outputs, not to memorize and regurgitate pre-existing content.” He added, “That is why we don’t allow user prompts that reference specific artists. We would have been happy to explain this to the corporate record labels that filed this lawsuit (and in fact, we tried to do so), but instead of entertaining a good faith discussion, they’ve reverted to their old lawyer-led playbook.”

The lawsuits expand multifront legal battles waged by creators that have the potential to prevent further encroachment of technology into creative industries. The Recording Industry Association of America, a trade group for the labels, views the unregulated creation of AI-generated content as an existential threat, primarily due to the possibility that they’ll directly compete against human-made tracks and disrupt the market for music samples.

In a statement, an RIAA spokesperson said, “Winners of the streaming era worked cooperatively with artists and rightsholders to properly license music. The losers did exactly what Suno and Udio are doing now.”

The filing of the lawsuits follow a host of major music publishers last year stepping into the legal battle against AI companies to stop the use of their music for training purposes. They await a ruling on whether an injunction will be issued in one of the most closely-watched cases on an industry-defining issue that may land in front of the Supreme Court.

With an eye toward AI companies possibly infringing on likeness rights of SAG-AFTRA members, national executive director Duncan Crabtree-Ireland said in a statement that the “massive infringement of recorded music – in large part constituting the creative works of SAG-AFTRA Members – is illegal, unethical, and must not remain unchecked.” The group last month welcomed a proposed class action against Berkeley-based AI startup LOVO accusing the company of misappropriating the voices of actors, including those of A-list talent such as Scarlett Johansson, Ariana Grande and Conan O’Brien. It’s believed to the first lawsuit against an AI firm over the use of likenesses to train an AI system, marking a growing rift between creators and companies alleged to indiscriminately hoover troves of data to power their technology.

Suno and Udio, formed by a group of former Google Deepmind researchers, stand close to the forefront of new startups that allow users “for both personal and commercial purposes” to create AI-generated tracks. By inputting a short prompt — such as a “sad and depressing song in the style of Billie Holiday about a whitling rose, Jazz blues, Atmospheric” — the tools return a song in that style in seconds. Both charge monthly subscription services, with recent rounds of funding vaulting them to lofty multimillion dollar valuations.

Like the complaint filed by music publishers against Anthropic, Monday’s lawsuits seek injunctions. They’re currently the only actions that seek such immediate relief, which is granted before a judgment is entered in cases it’s found that irreparable injury is likely to be suffered by a plaintiff that can substantiate a likelihood of winning the lawsuit.

The labels allege that Suno and Uncharted Labs copied their “copyrighted sound recordings en masse and ingested them into” their AI systems. They point to the AI tools frequently generating works with “strong resemblances” to copyrighted recordings. By using targeted prompts that include characteristics of popular songs — such as the decade of release, genre, topic and description of the artist — the systems return music that mirrors copyrighted works related to the description, according to the complaint.

The record companies’ urgency in resolving legal uncertainty around the use of copyrighted works to train AI systems may lie in the commercialization of AI-generated content, which is more readily seen in music than in other industries. Spotify allows users, for example, to upload AI-generated music, a policy which creators have said will flood the service with cheap content that they say will cheapen the value of their work.

Using the prompt “pop punk american alternative rock California 2004 rob Cavallo,” Udio spit out “Subliminal Hysteria,” which allegedly copies elements of Green Day’s hit “American Idiot,” according to the complaint. The prompt “m a r i a h c a r e y, contemporary r&b, holiday, Grammy Award-winning American singer/songwriter, remarkable vocal range” returns a clone of “All I Want For Christmas Is You” in a voice nearly identical to the artist that copies the first two verses of the original, the lawsuit claims.

“When those who develop such a service steal copyrighted sound recordings, the service’s synthetic musical outputs could saturate the market with machine-generated content that will directly compete with, cheapen, and ultimately drown out the genuine sound recordings on which the service is built,” the complaint states.

The labels warn that the AI tools have the potential to upend the market for music sampling, the process of licensing a song to incorporate a portion into a new work. Though the saga wasn’t referenced in the complaint, Metro Boomin last month released a beat called “BBL Drizzy, calling on fans to record their own verses over it in a shot at Drake in the Degrassi alum’s clash with Kendrick Lamar. The beat sampled an AI track, which featured an AI-generated voice, melody and instrumentals generated by Udio. It’s believed to be one of the first high profile instances of AI-driven sampling.

Udio cofounder David Ring has said that his company can “simplify a lot of the rights management” issues inherent in sampling music.

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Without intervention from Congress, the legality of using copyrighted works in training datasets will be decided by the courts. The question will likely be answered in part on fair use, which provides protection for the use of copyrighted material to make a secondary work as long as it’s “transformative.” It remains among the primary battlegrounds for the mainstream adoption of AI, with some companies putting guardrails on use due to legal ambiguity.

The record companies’ lawsuit nods to the AI firms’ position that their conduct is covered by the legal doctrine, arguing that there’s an existing market that’s being undercut. By refusing to license content they’re profiting off of, Sudo and Uncharted Labs threaten to “eliminate the existing market for licensing sound recordings, as well as the future market for licensing sound recordings to generative AI companies,” the lawsuit says. The complaint stresses, “Rather than license copyrighted sound recordings, potential licensees interested in licensing such recordings for their own purposes could generate an AI-soundalike at virtually no cost.”

The argument may be aimed at undermining a fair use defense, which was effectively reined in when the Supreme Court issued its recent decision in Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts v. Goldsmith. In that case, the majority said that an analysis of whether an allegedly infringing work was sufficiently transformed must be balanced against the “commercial nature of the use.” The music publishers are attempting to establish that the alleged copyright infringement hurt their prospects to profit off of the material by interfering with potential licensing deals for use of their music.

“The Supreme Court’s Warhol decision from 2023 found that, it is not fair use if the defendant uses the plaintiff’s work in the same stream of commerce,” says Ed Klaris, an intellectual property lawyer and professor at Columbia Law School. Pointing to rightsholders increasingly “voluntarily licensing music to the AI companies,” he observes that the arguments is an “interesting new approach” in the legal battle that could impact how courts approach analysis of the legal doctrine.

In April, hundreds of musicians, including Billie Eilish, Nicki Minah and Stevie Wonder, signed onto an open letter submitted by the Artist Rights Alliance calling on AI companies, developers and digital music platforms to stop using AI to “infringe upon and devalue the rights of human artists.” It was followed by Sony Music Group last month sending a letter to more than 700 AI firm to stop using its intellectual property to train their AI systems.

In music publishers’ lawsuit against Amazon’s Anthropic, a federal court on Monday dismissed the case and transferred it to the Northern District of California, which is overseeing identical litigation initiated by artists and authors over AI companies training their technology on copyrighted materials.

Jen Jacobsen, Artist Rights Alliance (ARA) Executive Director: “Artists deserve for their hard work and creativity to be respected in the marketplace and protected from services like Suno and Udio, which undermine the very principles on which copyright was founded,” said Jen Jacobsen, executive director of Artist Rights Alliance. “These services are engaging in massive theft to train their models and flood playlists with machine imitations, infringing on creators’ rights and devaluing art itself.”

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