Ownership of IP could lead to complicated legal disputes

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Posted by Laura Steel on 19 December 2019

Laura Steel - Commercial Lawyer
Laura Steel Solicitor

Artificial intelligence (AI) is already influencing a range of industries, but questions over the ownership of intellectual property (IP) could lead to complicated legal disputes, a solicitor from leading Midlands law firm Wright Hassall warns.

Self-driving vehicles, digital assistants – such as Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa – and home security systems are examples of how AI can assist in everyday situations but the technology is also set to play a significant role in the creation of content.

Unveiled in Amsterdam in 2016, a 3D portrait entitled “the Next Rembrandt” marked the culmination of an 18-month project which aimed to predict and create the renaissance painter’s next artwork – more than 300 years after his death.

Having examined the entire collection of the Dutch artist’s work, the team of data analysts determined a conclusive subject: a portrait of a man in his thirties. Using AI, the team then set out to create an “original” new work, firstly by producing a 2D image and then applying the technology to generate a 3D painting.

Unsurprisingly, the portrait generated widespread media attention but according to Laura Steel, a solicitor specialising in intellectual property and information law at the Leamington-based firm, the project exemplifies potential legal complexities as AI becomes more commonplace.

“We are in somewhat unchartered territory” Steel said. “Projects like the Rembrandt portrait and what this means in terms of IP ownership are open to interpretation”

According to Steel, while the creators of the Rembrandt project – ING, Microsoft, TU Delft, via their employees – could be considered to be authors of the relevant IP, there are other parties involved, such as the software developers, and the position is not clear cut.

For his part, the man behind the Rembrandt portrait, advertising executive Bas Korsten, was at pains to point out that the project was not seeking to create a “new” Rembrandt.

“We are creating something new from his work,’ Korsten told The Guardian newspaper in 2016. “Only Rembrandt could create a Rembrandt.”

Similar projects include Chinese tech firm Huawei's use of AI to complete Franz Schubert’s famously unfinished Symphony No. 8 – nearly 200 years after the Austrian composer started it.

And while these projects are more likely an exercise in innovative PR for the parties involved rather than a cynical attempt to exploit the work of significant cultural figures, there will undoubtedly be instances when the courts are required to step in.

“One of the key issues is how ownership of copyright works involving AI will be dealt with” said Steel. “It could be that the rights of those who decide to input the relevant data into the AI system will be favoured. However, some commentators reject the notion that AI-generated works give rise to IP protection and some believe that this can only be decided on a case-by-case basis.

“There are more questions than answers at this stage,” said Steel. “The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 is long overdue an overhaul. It is a well-established fact that the law struggles to keep up with developments in technology but there is no doubt that this is an exciting and ever-evolving area.”

About the author

Laura Steel


Laura provides commercial legal advice to businesses across a range of sectors

Laura Steel

Laura provides commercial legal advice to businesses across a range of sectors

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