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OpenAI’s Lawsuits: An Overview of ChatGPT’s Courtroom Challenges

Last Updated March 16, 2024 11:12 AM
Giuseppe Ciccomascolo
Last Updated March 16, 2024 11:12 AM

Key Takeaways

  • Elon Musk’s lawsuit against OpenAI is just the latest in a series of legal issues for the owner of ChatGPT.
  • New York Times and other plaintiffs accused Sam Altman’s company of copyright infringement.
  • Here’s a complete overview of main OpenAI’s legal cases.

The legal battle Elon Musk initiated against OpenAI represents just the tip of the iceberg in a series of disputes surrounding the owner of ChatGPT. Ranging from copyright disputes to allegations of trademark infringement, the legal team under Sam Altman’s leadership has been kept busy addressing these issues.

Among the plaintiffs taking legal action against OpenAI are prominent entities like the New York Times, and Elon Musk, alongside smaller players within the media industry. Below is an overview of the primary legal disputes entangling OpenAI.

Elon Musk vs OpenAI

Elon Musk lodged  a complaint alleging that Sam Altman and fellow OpenAI co-founder Gregory Brockman had violated the terms of an agreement established when OpenAI was established in 2015.

At the project’s inception, Musk contributed a substantial portion of the initial funding to OpenAI, which was conceived as a non-profit research organization dedicated to the development of responsible AI systems. However, Musk has now taken legal action against Altman and Brockman, asserting that they breached the contract after OpenAI transitioned into a for-profit entity in 2019.

The complaint contends that OpenAI’s foundational principles, which were initially established in collaboration with Microsoft, have been disregarded. Contrary to its original ethos as a non-profit open-source initiative, the lawsuit alleges that the new iteration of OpenAI has evolved into a closed-source entity effectively controlled by the world’s largest technology company.

Musk’s lawsuit claims that Altman and Brockman were obligated, under the founding agreement, to develop AI technologies “for the benefit of humanity” rather than for personal or corporate gain. However, the introduction of the GPT-4 language model signifies, according to the suit, a significant departure from this mission, constituting a breach of the founding agreement

New York Times Complaints About Copyright Infringement

The New York Times has initiated legal action against OpenAI and its investor, a technology giant, on grounds of copyright infringement. The lawsuit asserts that these entities utilized millions of articles from the newspaper without proper authorization to train their artificial intelligence (AI) models, including the widely recognized AI platforms ChatGPT and Copilot.

The New York Times contends that OpenAI and its AI models, fueled by large language models (LLMs), have produced output that mirrors Times content verbatim, closely summarizes it, and imitates its distinctive style.

The newspaper argues that this unauthorized utilization of its work to develop AI models constitutes a blatant infringement of its copyright, aiming to hold the companies accountable for billions of dollars in statutory and actual damages.

This lawsuit  carries significant implications, potentially establishing a precedent for how courts define the value of news content and the associated damages for prior use. It could also influence the trajectory of AI technology and impact the dynamics between media companies and AI firms while addressing the extent to which AI models can utilize copyrighted content without facing legal consequences.

The New York Times seeks to hold OpenAI and its investors responsible for the aforementioned billions of dollars in statutory and actual damages resulting from the unlawful use of its work to create AI models. Additionally, the newspaper petitions the court to halt the defendants from training their AI models using its work and to mandate the removal of its content from their datasets

Main Copyright Issues

On November 21, 2023, Julian Sancton and fellow writers launched a class-action lawsuit  against OpenAI and Microsoft in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. The plaintiffs accused OpenAI and Microsoft of copyright infringement, alleging that their works were unlawfully utilized to train the ChatGPT AI language model.

They asserted that the use of their works by OpenAI and Microsoft does not constitute fair use as it lacks transformative elements. Moreover, they argue that the commercial nature of ChatGPT, being a commercial product, further invalidates claims of fair use. OpenAI and Microsoft have refuted these allegations.

Both companies contend that ChatGPT represents a transformative work, thus justifying its use of the plaintiffs’ material. Additionally, they argue that the plaintiffs faced no damages as ChatGPT has not supplanted their works in the market.

Meanwhile, on September 19, 2023, the Authors Guild group and 17 authors initiated  another class-action lawsuit against OpenAI in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. Like the previous case, the plaintiffs accuse OpenAI of copyright infringement regarding the use of their works to train ChatGPT.

Similarly, OpenAI denied these allegations, maintaining that ChatGPT constitutes fair use due to its transformative nature and lack of market displacement of the plaintiffs’ works.

Also A Pulitzer Winner Among Plaintiffs

In a separate lawsuit , filed on September 8, 2023, in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon and several other writers, including George R.R. Martin, David Henry Hwang, Matthew Klam, Rachel Louise Snyder, and Ayelet Waldman, accused OpenAI of copyright infringement.

The plaintiffs argued that OpenAI unlawfully copied their copyrighted works to train ChatGPT, violating their exclusive rights to reproduce, distribute, and publicly display their works. They seek injunctive relief to halt OpenAI’s use of their works, along with damages for the profits generated from their unauthorized usage.

OpenAI contested these allegations, asserting that ChatGPT’s utilization of the plaintiffs’ works constitutes fair use due to its transformative nature and the absence of market displacement. It also argued that the plaintiffs have not suffered any damages as a result of ChatGPT’s operation.

OpenAI vs Open Artificial Intelligence

In a notable role reversal, OpenAI becomes the plaintiff in a legal conflict. It alleged  that Open Artificial Intelligence, Inc. has infringed its “OpenAI” trademark by using a notably similar “Open AI” mark on its website and marketing materials. OpenAI further accused Open Artificial Intelligence of unfair competition. It asserted they created a deceptive website to mislead the USPTO about the use of the “Open AI” mark in commerce.

The lawsuit was filed by OpenAI on August 4, 2023, in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. As of now, the case is ongoing, without a set trial date.

OpenAI claimed Open Artificial Intelligence has caused “irreparable harm” by damaging its reputation and confusing consumers about any affiliation between them. It seeks a permanent injunction against Open Artificial Intelligence’s use of the mark, along with damages and legal fees.

As of now, Open Artificial Intelligence has not submitted a response to the complaint.

The resolution of this case holds broader implications for the technology sector, particularly concerning the use of generic terms in trademarks. In fact, “Artificial intelligence” serves as a descriptive term commonly employed by numerous tech companies. Consequently, it remains uncertain whether OpenAI can successfully assert trademark rights in the term “Open AI,” considering its descriptive usage by other entities within the industry.

Older Legal Issues

In 2022, a group of programmers sued  GitHub, Microsoft, and associated OpenAI entities in the Northern District of California. They claimed GitHub and OpenAI used their code without permission to train AI tools, breaching open-source licenses requiring attribution and permission for commercial use.

Furthermore, the plaintiffs argued that GitHub and OpenAI engaged in unfair competition by leveraging their code to gain a competitive edge for their own products. They asserted that GitHub and OpenAI’s utilization of their code affords them an advantage in developing new AI coding tools.

GitHub, Microsoft, OpenAI, and other defendants refuted the allegations in the lawsuit. They argued that their usage of the plaintiffs’ code constitutes fair use as it is transformative in nature. Additionally, they contend that the plaintiffs have not incurred any damages since their code remains accessible to the public.

The plaintiffs claimed GitHub and OpenAI violated their copyrights by using their code for Codex and Copilot AI tools, infringing on their rights to reproduce, distribute, and display their code. Moreover, they also alleged a breach of contract due to unauthorized usage under open-source licenses requiring attribution and permission for commercial use.

PM Accused OpenAI Of Violating State Privacy Law

In a separate case, initiated  by PM, the plaintiff alleged privacy infringement, unauthorized data usage, and violation of federal and state privacy and property laws against OpenAI.

The lawsuit revolves around the unauthorized acquisition and utilization of private information by OpenAI, in connection with its generative AI programs ChatGPT and DALL-E. The plaintiff contends that OpenAI surreptitiously accessed private data from internet users, including minors, without proper consent and in contravention of legal norms.

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