What is the issue?

Generative Artificial Intelligence systems are set to disrupt aspects of professional creative work, and have in fact already begun doing so. AI systems are now used for audiobook narration as a cost-cutting measure by large providers like Apple, though the market has so far indicated no preference for artificial narration over that provided by professional voice actors. Recent industry reports have highlighted instances where AI has also been used in the creation of cover art, a practice that stirs controversy with both creators and readers.

But the central concern at these early stages of the AI rollout is the question of how Large Language Models and AI are trained. Massive amounts of published writing are required to train AI. That writing is often protected by copyright, and the training of AI involves copying.

In September 2023, the US publication The Atlantic published a searchable database containing the titles of books used to train a number of US-based artificial intelligence projects. Many of those titles are by Canadian authors. You can see this database, and search for your own works in it here

What TWUC is doing

The Writers’ Union of Canada has been studying and discussing the question of artificial intelligence as related to creative professions for many years. Concerns that scanned books would be used for unlicensed “machine learning” were included in submissions made during the Google Books court action over a decade ago.

With the rise of Large Language Models and Generative AI, the issue of permission for use of creative work in the training of artificial intelligence is now very much in the media’s eye. The Union has been fielding many media and industry queries on the subject, are tracking two high-profile class actions in the United States aimed at securing permission and compensation for authors, and are discussing strategic next steps with our international colleagues.

Claims that AI training has accessed online “shadow libraries” — a.k.a. book piracy sites — to gather their huge datasets are particularly worrying. Regulators must not allow a new technology to legitimize illegal activity in this way.

We are aware there is a spectrum of opinion about the usefulness of AI in creative work. Our concerns, and those of our global colleagues are summed up well by the US Authors Guild in an open letter they have addressed to AI developers:

  1. Permission for the use of copyrighted material in generative AI programs must be sought and obtained.
  2. Fair compensation must be paid for both past and ongoing use of creative works in generative AI programs.
  3. Fair compensation must be paid for the use of creative works in AI output.

TWUC is grateful to our international partners, the US Authors Guild and UK Society of Authors, for their continued leadership on this issue.

In September 2023, our US counterparts at the Authors Guild launched a class action lawsuit (along with several high-profile US authors) against the San Francisco-headquartered company OpenAI. As most AI development companies operate out of the United States, the initial use of the courts to rein in this damaging and illegal practice must take place there. 

Whether there is also recourse to Canadian courts on this issue is something TWUC is closely studying. TWUC is in close contact with the Authors Guild, and stands ready to support their case with international witness testimony through amicus filings. We will keep members informed as this case advances through the courts. 

We have also developed new wording for our Model Trade Book Contract aimed at reserving the author’s right to deny permission for AI training and the use of AI in publication.

What you can do

TWUC encourages all members to sign the US Authors Guild’s Open Letter calling for best legal and ethical practices from AI companies. Be aware of how your own work may be used in the continual training and upgrading of Large Language Models and Generative AI engines. See links below for what you might do should you discover your work in one of these databases.  

Support the Union in our international advocacy and calls for effective regulation on this issue.


Further reading

Stronger Together

TWUC’s advocacy is most effective as the collective voice of Canada’s professional authors. We are stronger together. If you are not already a member of TWUC and are working as a writer, consider joining the Union. If you wish to support TWUC’s advocacy outside of membership, consider donating to the Union.