The Memo: Record labels sue AI start-ups over copyright infringement

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Record labels sue AI start-ups over copyright infringement

Madeleine Clarke - 1 July 2024

In one of the first significant AI-related lawsuits in the music industry, major record labels have banded together to sue AI song generators Suno and Udio, claiming that the AI start-ups have infringed upon their copyright. On Monday 24 June, industry giants Sony Music, Universal Music Group and Warner Records were among the group to file lawsuits against the song generators. These cases were filed in district courts in Massachusetts and New York, and claimants are looking to seek up to $150,000 compensation for each work copied. 

So, what are the labels making all this noise about? Well, after providing basic prompts, AI generators’ users can create digital music files that sound like real audio recordings. Just as with AI-generated text and art, the programmes need real recordingto be trained to create these imitations. This is where the copyright claim comes in: the plaintiffs argue that Suno and Udio used their copyrighted sound recordings to train the programmes without their permission. 

The claims cover a range of genres and styles across the decades, as illustrated by some of the plaintiffs’ examples. For instance, they have found copies of Jason Derulo’s iconic digital watermark of singing his own name in outputs from the generators. Similarly, a file called Subliminal Hysteria was produced using words related to the band Green Day, which the plaintiffs claim is similar to the band’s song American Idiot. 

But are such uses actually illegal? To make sense of how this works in the US, you’ll want to look at Section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976, which focuses on fair use. It is defined as the use of a piece of work “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting [and] teaching.” This exception is intended to protect creativity and enable educational use. Certain considerations such as the following are also used to determine whether it’s fair use. These include the type and use of the work (i.e. whether it will be used for profit), the percentage of copyrighted work used, and the value of the copyrighted work. UK copyright law has a similar concept of fair use called fair dealing, which is more limited but makes exceptions for things like quotations, research, library archives and parodies. 

Interestingly, while the exact stipulations differ, both US and UK copyright law also consider “transformative” works as fair use/dealingThis means that if a user can prove they’ve added something new to the original material, then it may be considered transformative and could therefore fall under fair use. This is likely to be a key element of the upcoming lawsuits. 

Although AI is a new frontier within the legal landscape, this is certainly not the first time that record labels have engaged in battles with smaller entities over copyright, having gained notoriety for copyright striking content creators on YouTube a few years back. Just a few seconds of audio from a song owned by one of these companies was often enough to divert any profits from a video to the record label making the claim. Although this could just be another moneymaking move from the record labels, the case is likely to set an important precedent for future AI battles in creative industries.