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Generative AI In Games Will Create A Copyright Crisis

AI Dungeon, a text-based fantasy simulation that runs on OpenAI’s GPT-3, has been churning out weird tales since May 2019. Reminiscent of early text adventure games like Colossal Cave Adventure, you get to choose from a roster of formulaic settings—fantasy, mystery, apocalyptic, cyberpunk, zombies—before picking a character class and name, and generating a story.

Here was mine: “You are Mr. Magoo, a survivor trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world by scavenging among the ruins of what is left. You have a backpack and a canteen. You haven’t eaten in two days, so you’re desperately searching for food.” So began Magoo’s 300-ish-word tale of woe in which, “driven half-mad” by starvation, he happens upon “a man dressed in white.” (Jesus? Gordon Ramsay?) Offering him a greeting kiss, Magoo is stabbed in the neck.

As lame as this story is, it hints at a knotty copyright issue the games industry is only just beginning to unravel. I’ve created a story using my imagination—but to do that I’ve used an AI helper. So who wrote the tale? And who gets paid for the work?

AI Dungeon was created by Nick Walton, a former researcher at a deep learning lab at Brigham Young University in Utah who is now the CEO of Latitude, a company that bills itself as “the future of AI-generated games.” AI Dungeon is certainly not a mainstream title, though it has still attracted millions of players. As Magoo’s tale shows, the player propels the story with action, dialogue, and descriptions; AI Dungeon reacts with text, like a dungeon master—or a kind of fantasy improv.

In several years of experimentation with the tool, people have generated far more compelling D&D-esque narratives than mine, as well as videos like “I broke the AI in AI Dungeon with my horrible writing.” It’s also conjured controversy, notably when users began prompting it to make sexually explicit content involving children. And as AI Dungeon—and tools like it—evolve, they will raise more difficult questions about authorship, ownership, and copyright.

Many games give you toolsets to create worlds. Classic series like Halo or Age of Empires include sophisticated map makers; Minecraft precipitated an open-ended, imaginative form of gameplay that The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom’s Fuse and Ultrahand capabilities draw clear inspiration from; others like Dreams or Roblox, are less games than platforms for players to make more games.

Historically, claims of ownership to in-game creations or user-generated creations (IGCs or UGCs) have been rendered moot by “take it or leave it” end-user license agreements—the dreaded EULAs that nobody reads. Generally, this means players surrender any ownership of their creations by switching on the game. (Minecraft is a rare exception here. It’s EULA has long afforded players ownership of their IGCs, with relatively few community freakouts.)

AI adds new complexities. Laws in both the US and the UK stipulate that, when it comes to copyright, only humans can claim authorship. So for a game like AI Dungeon, where the platform allows a player to, essentially, “write” a narrative with the help of a chatbot, claims of ownership can get murky: who owns the output, the company that developed the AI, or the user?