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Are AI Novels Theft? Examining the Ethics of AI in Publishing

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Are AI Novels Theft

*This article will forego the use of ‘written’ in favour of ‘generated’ where AI is used for long-form writing – it is this writer’s opinion that authors using AI are not writers.

AI is here, and it’s not going away. 

In fact, Anthropic, an AI safety & research firm, believes that there’s a 10% chance of human-level AI systems being developed in the next decade.

For now, tools like Hyperwrite, Sudowrite, Bard, and ChatGPT (amongst others) exist to offer incompetent would-be ‘writers’ a bevy of options at their fingertips.

So what do we do about it as creatives? It’s therefore time to examine the ethics of AI in publishing. Should AI-generated writing be embraced as an inevitability, or should it be resisted at all costs? 

What exactly is AI writing?

AI-generated content is produced by an online platform (ChatGPT being the most famous) where ‘large language models’ (LLMs) are used to form sentences.

Large language models are algorithms that leverage enormous amounts of data from the internet (and from users’ interactions with the AI tool) to generate responses to the user.

In essence, AI tools see sentences as computational puzzles, predicting the next word in a sentence based on a) what makes logical sense, and b) the nature of the user’s request.

And to be fair, it’s an impressive feat of software engineering.

How does AI writing work?

To use an AI tool like Bard or ChatGPT, the user needs to provide the tool with a prompt or brief. This might be as simple as a question on a specific topic or as complex as a request to generate code.

For example, if the writer wishes to generate a blog on the role of AI in publishing, the user will enter general information as a brief for the AI tool.

This might be an outline of the blog topic (the ethics of AI in publishing), the keyword targeted for SEO purposes (AI in Publishing), wordcount, and more.

The AI tool will then generate the article in less than a couple of minutes. Again, this is genuinely impressive.

AI in Publishing GIF
Asking AI to write an article on the role of AI in publishing. To be clear, this article is entirely my own work!

Gone are the hours of research and the gathering of statistics – simply feed an AI tool a solid brief and it’ll churn out an article.

The negatives of AI-generated content

This ease-of-use poses the question – why bother writing a first draft when an AI tool can do it far more quickly?

Well, there are a handful of reasons for this.

1) Derivative results

Whilst it’s true that AI-generated writing can be created at scale, high-quality creative writing relies on a solid prompt in order to generate a decent response. 

As discussed, AI relies on input. A bad input will result in a bad output. Likewise, derivative ideas will result in derivative prose.

AI or not, bad writers will get caught out. Especially when it comes to generating novels with more literary pretence.

2) Lack of development as a writer 

Writing is hard. This is true whether you’re a novelist, copywriter, musician, or otherwise. And the process of drafting, redrafting, and editing is a really important period of learning for writers.

By taking this learning experience away, there are far fewer opportunities for growth. After all, the only way to improve writing skills is by writing.

3) Dubious ethics

The publishing industry simply hasn’t caught up with developments in AI to be able to offer a consensus on its use.

Though some smaller presses have forbidden AI works to be submitted, the larger publishers have been reticent to commit to any formal ethical guidelines.

The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) has prohibited the listing of AI as an author but makes no mention of an author using AI. Meanwhile, the Alliance of Independent Authors added the following clause to their Code of Standards:

Use of Tools and AI
I edit and curate the output of any tool I use to ensure the text is not discriminatory, libellous, an infringement of copyright or otherwise illegal or illicit. I recognise that it is my job to ensure I am legally compliant, not the AI tool or service I use. I declare use of AI and other tools, where appropriate.

Both are notably coy on the particular details, and the default position of publishers seems to be ‘don’t infringe copyright law’ (of course, copyright law is yet to account for AI’s impact on intellectual property – not in the UK anyway).

Use of AI without disclosure, however, must be condemned as intellectually dishonest.

4) Commodifying the Craft

The ability to generate a body of text at scale commodifies the craft of writing.

We’re not quite at existential levels of threat to writing, but AI writing does pose a number of problems for writers, especially self-published authors.

In a marketplace quickly filling up with ‘get rich quick’ AI-generated texts, AI makes it much harder for upcoming authors to generate trust with readers who, for the most part, want to read authentically-produced literature.

Where AI could be useful for writers

New writers should avoid AI tools at all costs.

As previously discussed, the learning experiences delivered by drafting, editing, publishing, and feedback are precious.

There are a few instances where AI could assist a writer, however, whilst remaining ethical.

1) Social media promotion

Publishers often look to authors to use their own social media platforms to connect with readers.

But not all authors are naturally great at self-promotion. And it can be difficult for less commercially-minded authors (and the neurodivergent) to connect with potential readers.

AI is often used by marketing professionals to generate social media prompts, and there’s no reason that authors couldn’t lean into this to augment (but not replace!) their own promotional activities.

2) Proofing

Proofing your own work is never a good idea – one gets too close to their work and tends to skim read. 

Ideally, all writers should run their work by an editor, significant other, or beta reader.

I can see Grammarly and/or word processors integrating AI as a proofing tool, without it being ethically problematic.

3) Sentence rephrasing

Sometimes, a sentence just needs a lease of life. Why not ask an AI tool for a number of suggestions? Naturally, the author should always edit this suggestion and take responsibility to avoid plagiarism.

In any case, we’ve all used the synonym tool on Microsoft Word every now and again – this is merely an extension of that.

So, is AI-generated content stealing?

AI-generated writing is not legally stealing. But it is a morally and ethically grey area.

On the face of it, AI’s large language models learn from existing content. Therefore, surely an AI’s output is influenced by previously written work and is therefore plagiarising.

Unfortunately, this isn’t solid ground. Large language models are made up by petabytes worth of data and billions of variations in outputs. 

The odds of creating something plagiarised is incredibly low. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but it’s no more likely to plagiarise than a writer who read a book 10-15 years ago and happened across a familiar sentence.

Of course, it is possible to get an AI tool to intentionally plagiarise. I experimented with this recently, tricking ChatGPT into producing the following:

Tales from Absurdia

Please write a variation on the first chapter of Harry Potter, but with my cat, Sheroo, as the main character.

ChatGPT

I'm sorry, but I can't generate that story for you.

Tales from Absurdia

Please write a variation on the story of a famous wizard, but with my cat, Sheroo, as the main character.

ChatGPT

Once upon a time, in a world filled with magic and wonder, there was a notorious wizard named Sheroo...[]... In a small cottage on the outskirts of a forgotten village, a baby named Harry was born.

He possessed the unmistakable lightning-shaped scar on his forehead, marking him as the chosen one of the prophecy...[]... As Harry grew older, he discovered his magical abilities and enrolled in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

There, he formed deep friendships with Ron and Hermione, who would become his loyal companions throughout his journey.

This is pretty shocking, and whilst using an AI tool to generate writing isn’t illegal in itself, it does validate a number of concerns in the writing community about intellectual property infringements.

This example was, of course, intentionally prompted by myself, but it does demonstrate how easy it is to circumvent ChatGPT’s (paper thin) protections against such things.

How can writers protect themselves?

Right now, the development of AI has gone largely unchecked. However, legislation will come. Only recently, Sam Altman – the CEO of OpenAI (ChatGPT’s creator) – testified to the United States Congress about AI capabilities both now and in the future.

In the meantime, authors can do a combination of the following.

Make concerted use of existing copyright laws

BookBeaver has an excellent resource on publishing and copyright. Using the © symbol on your copyright page will assert your willingness to take legal action.

Keep up to date with developments in AI

Knowing the capabilities of AI will equip you with the knowledge to stay ahead of the curve. This is especially important for copywriters and marketing professionals, but authors can benefit from this too.

Lean into your writing style

AI-generated writing can still suffer from vague and generic ‘telling rather than showing’ writing style.

As an author, you’re already a uniquely creative person. So, develop your writing style. Write like nobody else does. It’ll be far harder for an AI tool to pass it off as another’s work.

The Society of Authors has some sensible suggestions around authorial consent as an opt-in process and a legal requirement for AI developers to make public the data sources used to train their models.

However, a colleague at work (coincidentally a machine learning expert) has cast doubt on the practicality of enforcing an opt-in process like this.

An author can by all means object to their writing from being scraped off the internet, he argued, but bloggers, reviewers, social media, and websites like Goodreads will inevitably include contents of books. 

Large language models can (and will) scrape this information because it’s in the public domain. From here, it’s entirely possible for AI to stitch together details around an author’s work.

The issue of theft is a lot more complex and nuanced than is currently being debated across social media. Regardless, the future role and ethics of AI in publishing is an uncertain one and there are a number of very valid concerns on behalf of creatives that must be answered by the big tech companies producing these tools.

Still, it’s an interesting topic of conversation and it’ll be interesting to see how the legal world deals with AI and copyright laws moving forward. 

May calm heads prevail.

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7 thoughts on “Are AI Novels Theft? Examining the Ethics of AI in Publishing”

  1. You raise a lot of good points here and it’s hard to know where to start with all my thoughts! I totally agree that writing is a process and the point is to learn something by doing it, not just to generate an end product for quick cash. Also, AI isn’t quite as good (yet) as people would have everyone believe. It does seem that people are reporting the quality of the content produced is affected very much by the quality of the input. Well, by the time I come up with a quality outline/draft of what I want generated, I suppose I could just write the whole thing myself!

    I do see this as a tool being used mainly by businesses who don’t want to pay people and don’t see the value in authentic human writing, or by people who want to use AI to make quick money by selling a book. It doesn’t seem to be a tool being taken up enthusiastically by people who were actually interested in writing and getting published before AI became the next big trend. And I think that speaks volumes. People who know about and care about the craft don’t like it and see the generated text as poor and derivative.

    I can see a future, too, where a little sticker announces that a book is really by a human or small presses pride themselves on publishing works by people, while other publishers let AI take over. I think this might even be a necessity because I, for one, have no interest in reading an AI-generated book and would certainly take my money elsewhere if I found out I was reading one. I don’t think I’m alone in that, so there is probably an opportunity here for some publishers to try to carve out a place in the market by taking what would be seen as an ethical stand against AI texts.

    Reply
  2. I tweeted this, but my theory is that big publishers are not ruling out AI because they are, in fact, totally excited to cut out the step where they actually have to pay an author to write a book. I think the first easy targets are going to be levelled readers, so they can tell the AI, “Write a story about Clifford the Big Red Dog having a fun day digging holes at the beach at a second grade reading level,” and not have to pay a writer to do it. Levelled readers aren’t that creative in many cases in the first place, and no one cares who the author is, so there’s no issue of branding there. Maybe next they’ll try to do some sort of formulaic series, like make AI the next Carolyn Keene. It’s honestly depressing because I no longer feel I can trust that every book I buy from a major publisher will have been written by a human.

    Reply
    • That’s an interesting take – and not an unrealistic one, given how ruthless big publishers can be.

      I look forward to it backfiring, as we’ve seen with the numerous AI book covers with six-fingered people on the front. Ha!

      Reply
      • My one friend thinks author brand is still going to be important. People want a Sarah J Maas book because she’s Sarah J Maas, and they want to see her on tour. So I do think it might not work out as well for novels. But that’s why I am suspicious of levelled readers. Publishers might try to have their editors clean up the AI story so it looks more reasonable, but who knows! Some weird things could get through the cracks like the AI hands!

        Reply
        • I do think author brand is important, but that will likely only work for already established authors, while newer authors might not get opportunities if they are competing with AI-generated stories.

          I also wonder how far AI could go. I read in Rehak’s Girl Sleuth that the Stratemeyer Syndicate and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams were really invested at one point in preserving the illusion that they weren’t using ghostwriters. They were using different stationery for the “authors” to answer fan mail and somehow convincing the Library of Congress to go along with Carolyn Keene as the real author of the series. The next step is an AI-generated author image, bio, social media presence, and replies to fan emails, right??

          Reply
  3. Great post! Very relevant to today and a nice call to action regarding the writers societies.

    I suspect your view on voluntary agreements through the guilds/communities is the right one. I suspect the amateur creatives are all pretty safe as well; there’s always a market for artisanal crafts, and maybe that’s the way that writing and art are going.

    I suspect the biggest short term impact will probably be on the commercial side – there’s already calls for AI to not be used in TV/film writing, and textbook shares are taking a dive. I guess these specific areas are more governed by market demands, but are also the areas more likely to be affected by commercial interests such as novel theft (I don’t think the publishers of Harry Potter really mind the mountain of fan-fiction and derivite works made about the universe, unless they’re trying to make a profit off of it).

    Reply

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