AI and Fantasy Writers: Copyright
Updated: Apr 19
Well, hello there! The world is changing. It’s always changing, but this time it affects creative writing and AI, so I figured I’d talk about how it affects fantasy writers and world builders, a community that I am, of course, part of.
I recently made a video about ChatGTP and world building:
Talking about it in my discord server raised the interesting question on copyright, which I thought I’d better address in a blog post.
The question is: is work generated by AI copyright protected?
The answer is (of course): it’s complicated.
Before we sail onto those turbulent waters, just a caveat: I am not a lawyer, everything in this blog is just a layman’s opinion. If I’m wrong, let me know in the comments and always seek proper legal advice for your region and country 😊
Right, let’s chart a course with AI and fantasy writing.
General Copyright & Fantasy
In both the US and the EU, copyright law protects original characters. That is to say, characters which possess unique traits and personalities that render them distinct from other fictional beings. For instance, the hobbits from J. R. R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" are protected under copyright law.
However, copyright does not extend to stock or generic characters, such as a wise old wizard or a brave knight. These archetypes are considered public domain and may be used by any author. To ensure that a character is protected, authors should strive to create detailed, unique personalities that cannot be easily replicated.
A midjourney generated image of my character Naira. The image is not copyrighted, since it's generated with midjourney, but the character, the balancer or high-priestess of the Order of the Threesome and married to two men absolutely is protected by copyright.
Plotlines and Settings
Copyright law protects the specific expression of ideas, such as an author's unique plotlines and settings. For example, the detailed plot of J. K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series is protected by copyright. You can’t just lift the whole story out and write a new tale of a boy who goes to magic school and combats a lich-like sorcerer over the course of his school career. You would need to make substantial changes to the world, the characters, and the details of the plot.
However, it's important to note that copyright does not protect general ideas, themes, or concepts. An author may write a story about a school for wizards without infringing on Rowling's work, so long as the plot, characters, and setting are substantially different.
Magic Systems and World building
Creating a rich, detailed world with a unique(-ish) magic system is a cornerstone of the fantasy genre. In both the US and the EU, the specific elements of an author's magic system and worldbuilding efforts are protected by copyright law. For instance, the complex rules and limitations governing the magic wielded by characters in Brandon Sanderson's "Mistborn" series are protected.
So, you can’t just create a new name and have your characters gain powers from chowing down on metals.
However, general concepts like the existence of magic or the presence of fantastical creatures are not protected. Authors are free to create their own magic systems and populate their worlds with magical beings, provided they do not copy specific details from another author's work.
My pyrofera, or blaze trees, created for the setting of Magicfall, is protected by copyright. Feel free to use the image of the tree though :)
Which means you can use something like: I burn these substances over a votive candle and breath in the fumes and that gives me XYZ abilities. The concept of consuming an item to gain magic isn’t copyrighted, just the specific rules and abilities of alomancy.
But now there is a new kid of the block…
AI-generated Content and Copyright: The Lay of the Land
The US Copyright Office has made its stance clear: human authorship is needed for a work to be copyrightable. That means AI-generated works, created without human intervention, can't be copyrighted. Even when you nudge the AI in a certain direction, the output might still be unprotectable if the AI determines the expressive elements. So, as fantasy authors, it's essential to know the lay of the land when using AI-generated content in our stories.
The full text of the US policy can be found here: Federal Register:: Copyright Registration Guidance: Works Containing Material Generated by Artificial Intelligence And it is binding as from 16 March 2023.
The advice is pretty clear for pictures, like those generated with midjourney. I used midjourney to generate all the images in this blog, and none of them can be protected with copyright, so if you like them, go ahead and use them :D
But then, I’m not a visual artist, I’m a writer. How does this policy affect fantasy worlds and writing?
Well straight up, AI generated parts of your work won't be protected unless you alter them enough to make them yours, same as an image. The parts of your work that are not AI generated fall under normal copyright protection.
Sounds a little scary? It's not actually that bad, you can still make sure your work is protected.
Protecting Your Work
When you mix AI-generated content into your fantasy worldbuilding, it's crucial to keep a clear line between what you create and what the AI spews forth. One way to do this is by heavily editing or reworking AI-generated content until your creative input is the dominant force. This way, you can claim the final product as your own creation, and therefore, copyrightable.
It's probably a good idea to keep track of the original AI output in some sort of archive so that you can prove that you have altered it, should there be a copyright dispute.
Remember that only the following things can really be protected:
Original characters with unique traits and personalities that set them apart from other fictional beings.
Specific expressions of ideas, such as unique plotlines and settings.
Elements of your magic system and worldbuilding efforts, as long as they are original and not pilfered from the AI-generated content.
Remember, copyright doesn't protect general ideas, themes, or concepts.
AI as a Sounding Board: A New Approach
One potential solution to the copyright challenges posed by AI-generated content is to treat AI as a sounding board buddy rather than just a tool. If you engage in a creative dialogue with the AI, you can introduce a higher level of human involvement and influence, which may help establish your work as copyrightable. This approach requires you to actively engage with the AI-generated content, edit, and refine it in a way that reflects your unique vision and creative input.
And again, seek legal advice! Navigating the complexities of copyright law and AI-generated content can be like sailing through a storm. It's highly recommended to consult with a legal professional experienced in intellectual property rights and copyright law. They can guide you through the process of protecting your work, ensuring that you comply with existing regulations and avoid potential legal pitfalls.
A Peek at the Future
(According to me. YMMV)
AI-generated content offers a treasure trove of potential for fantasy worldbuilding, but it also raises critical questions about copyright and authorship.
To harness this power, while still protecting your work, keep in mind the importance of human involvement, originality, and documentation throughout your creative process. Embrace the collaboration rather than just generation to ensure that the content is still yours, just with a great sounding board that has a lot of knowledge to play with..
AI is here to stay, but that doesn’t mean human creativity is out of business. Our minds gave birth to millions of fantastic stories and worlds long before we built large language models to help us. Even so, AI can help us bring those concepts to life faster and in greater detail.
So, don’t be afraid of using AI in fantasy world building, but do bear in mind that elements created by AI and left unchanged by you in the final writing will not be part of the work protected by copyright.
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