Chances are you’ve already seen the headline (or some variation thereof):
Here’s what happened: A Colorado man entered an art competition at the Colorado State Fair Fine Arts Competition in the category of “digital arts/digitally-manipulated photography”. The problem, however, was that he produced the image using Midjourney, an online AI program that produces images based on user text input. He entered the piece using the name “Jason M. Allen via Midjourney”, thus disclosing the use of the AI and meeting all competition rules. And he won! The judges were not initially aware that AI was used, yet later admitted that they still would have awarded Allen the prize even if they had. As the headline above attests, many artists the world over were not pleased with this outcome. In fact, many were livid.
This story is an apt touchstone for the emerging debates on the ethics of AI-generated images. While artists have good reason to be angry with the outcome of that content, I am not sure it is for the reasons they think. Like many people engaged in this debate, a lot of anger and energy is being misdirected, missing the heart of the issue. It’s important to note from the start that this will not be (and cannot be) even close to a comprehensive take on this topic. To be sure, volumes will be written in due course. Further, I am not an expert in art, ethics, copyright law, or any of the other fields. And finally, I have not landed on a firm position on all aspects of this debate.
However, as someone who produces and sells digital art, creating art for both myself and for paying clients- not to mention as a professional writer in a field where AI is beginning to emerge as well- I do have a stake in the game. Further, I have spent the last few months (bed-ridden due to prolonged illness) obsessively exploring these AI programs, especially Midjourney, and even selling some of the works I developed.
So with all that said, let’s dive into some of the points that have been missing in much of the conversation.