This Sudbury, Ont., illustrator learned AI used his art without his consent

As art generated by artificial intelligence (AI) becomes more popular, a Sudbury, Ont., illustrator says he was surprised to find his work reflected in some programs without his permission.

Mark Gagne makes his living as a full-time illustrator and multimedia artist through his business, Mindmelt Studio.

While searching a popular database, he discovered one of his images, complete with a watermark he added when he posted it to his own website. Through further searches, Gagne said, he found dozens of uses of his work in AI-created artwork.

AI tools like DALE-E and Midjourney use natural language processing to understand written inputs and translate them into imagery. 

To build those images, they draw on vast databases of existing visuals to create derivative imagery in seconds.

“At this point, it’s really hard to say definitively how it would affect my career,” said Gagne.

“I mean, it’s definitely troubling. Say if somebody wants to have an image for a book that they’re publishing, for instance. Instead of coming to me and paying me to commission a piece of artwork for that book cover, they’ll just enter in some keywords into an AI art generator.”

The compensation issue

Gagne noted that lawsuits are underway against some companies that run AI art generators because artists have alleged they’ve used their work without permission or proper compensation.

A collage of several illustrations with three circled in white.
Gagne says he found some of his work, circled, had shown up in searches on AI art generators. (Submitted by Mark Gagne)

Notably, Getty Images, a multimedia company that owns a library of millions of images and videos, is suing a company called Stability AI.

In a media statement on Jan. 17, Getty Images alleged, “Stability AI unlawfully copied and processed millions of images protected by copyright and the associated metadata owned or represented by Getty Images absent a licence to benefit Stability AI’s commercial interests and to the detriment of the content creators.”

Gagne said AI companies should make it easier for artists to opt out if they don’t want their work used by art generators.

He added that the “Spotify model,” now common in music streaming, could also be applied to visual art. Every time an AI generator references one of his pieces, he would receive a small amount of money.

There’s this sense that these AIs can kind of produce anything in a very, very short amount of time.– Aaron Langille, Cambrian College game design professor

Futurist and technology consultant Jesse Hirsh said the Spotify model is problematic for most artists, because only those at the top benefit from it.

“Only the Taylor Swifts and the Rolling Stones of the world actually get paid from streaming services, because the fraction of a penny is such a tiny fraction that only the most popular are actually able to make a living,” Hirsh said.

Hirsh said legislation is needed for more “algorithmic transparency,” which would force companies like OpenAI, the creator of the popular ChatGPT and DALE-E, to be transparent with creators and make it easy for them to opt out of their models.

Learning about AI-generated content

Beyond issues around copyright, Hirsh said, AI-generated art will devalue art made by human creators.

“If an artist, let’s say, took a couple of years to produce a graphic novel traditionally, but now someone else is able to create a graphic novel in a week, then that could create a change in the publishing industry where they no longer have the patience for the artist who is deliberate, and painstaking and careful about how they construct their art,” he said.

Aaron Langille, who teaches game design at Cambrian College in Sudbury, says he could see some creative companies advertising no AI was used to create their content, to differentiate themselves from competitors. (Markus Schwabe/CBC)

Aaron Langille teaches video-game design at Sudbury’s Cambrian College and has similar concerns.

“There’s this sense that these AIs can kind of produce anything in a very, very short amount of time,” he said.

“So I think artists that are uncomfortable by this, I think that’s a fully justified reaction to this. I think the concerning part is that I don’t think these are going to go away.”

Langille said he could see some creative companies advertising no AI was used to create their content, to differentiate themselves from their competitors.

While he said he has had informal discussions about AI-generated content with his students, he could see it becoming a part of the curriculum as it becomes a more important tool for content creators.

“We will certainly not be bringing it up as a way to reduce jobs or to reduce the human factor, but to maybe reduce some of the strain that’s on the humans that are doing the game design,” Langille said.

When asked by Morning North what he plans to do now that he’s discovered his work is being used without his permission, Gagne said: “You don’t have much protection even with putting watermarks and so on. It definitely is in the back of  my mind now every time I upload something that it could be getting scraped up by AI.

“I don’t know what the easy answer would be for something like that.”

LISTEN | Mark Gagne speaks about his ‘cute and creepy’ art and the difficulty in protecting his creations:

Morning North7:39A Sudbury-based multimedia artist says apps that use artificial intelligence to create images are stealing his work

The debate continues over whether apps using artificial intelligence help or hinder. Sudbury-based multimedia artist Marc Gagné discovered recently his original artwork is being scraped from the web for use in image-generating apps. He joined us to talk about the issue.

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