AI Is Stealing Artists’ Work—What Can Writers Do About It?

AI Is Stealing Authors’ Work—What Can Writers Do About It?

AI Is Stealing Artists’ Work—What Can Writers Do About It?

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Many authors dream of seeing scores of their own titles on bookshelves one day. But what if you found out that there already were—and that you hadn’t written them?

That’s essentially what happened to publishing expert and teacher extraordinaire Jane Friedman just last week, when a reader emailed her about Jane’s newest books.

The trouble was, she hadn’t written any.

Jane discovered a handful of books for sale online geared toward her area of expertise—helping authors launch and sustain successful writing careers—purporting to be written by her.

But they weren’t. In fact, when Jane checked them out, she immediately suspected they were AI-generated fakes from a huckster trying to trade on her brand and reputation—their text was consistent with results from what she calls her own AI “vanity” prompts, i.e., “What would Jane Friedman say about…?”

(As a consistent blogger for many years, Jane suspects there’s plenty of her own material for these large-language-model AI engines to cannibalize into plausible knockoffs of her work.)

Read Jane’s post about this incident: “I Would Rather See My Books Get Pirated Than This (Or: Why Goodreads and Amazon Are Becoming Dumpster Fires)”

AI and Authorship

Naturally she immediately contacted the sites to tell them of the fakes so they could take them down.

Except they didn’t. One asked whether she had copyright on the impostor books, which of course she doesn’t, and whether her name was trademarked, which of course it wasn’t. And then they closed the case, leaving the books both available and falsely attributed to her.

The other merely pointed her toward a comment thread in a group for reporting violations run by volunteer “librarians.”

Luckily Jane has a strong enough following and reach that when she started posting about the issue on social media and the issue was quickly picked up by multiple media outlets (including The Daily Beast, The Guardian, CNN, and BBC Newsnight), the problem was resolved and the impostor titles removed from both sites.

But Jane and many others in the industry are concerned that this is just the first volley in a likely slew of impostor books trying to trade on other authors’ reputation and hard work. And not every author has Jane’s power and platform.

In an industry already riddled with ways of taking advantage of authors, from pirating books to a whole series of other scams Jane recently talked about in one of her free Sunday Sermons, this one may be the most chilling. 

Initially concerned about whether AI would replace authors across industries from journalism to screenwriting to publishing and more, writers now have to worry that it might actually be plagiarizing them and stealing their identities.

Initially concerned about whether AI would replace authors across industries from journalism to screenwriting to publishing and more, writers now have to worry that it might actually be stealing their identities.

And despite the preternatural growth of artificial intelligence and the speed at which it is advancing and expanding, both government and business have been slow to take meaningful measures to regulate it. At the moment, what happened to Jane doesn’t even seem to be technically illegal.

And when an author’s rights are violated, it’s difficult to have these impostor books removed. Jane is backed by a major publisher for her book The Business of Being a Writer, the University of Chicago Press, and she’s a member of the Authors Guild, yet still it wasn’t until she took to social media with her significant following there that the books were removed.

What about authors without her backing, reach, or high profile? When you’ve spent years building up name recognition, reader trust, and a reputation and following, a single poorly executed AI-generated hash of a book can contaminate an author’s brand and undercut a career’s worth of good work and goodwill—not to mention misappropriating your profits.

With few guardrails currently in place to prevent abuses like this—and well beyond—what can an author do to protect themselves and the work and career they may have spent significant time, energy, and money developing?

How to Protect Your Writing from AI

Educate yourself.

It’s daunting—and nigh-on impossible—to keep up with everything happening in the AI world, even in the subset that relates to art and artists. But the more you know…

I’ve been closely watching the SAG and WGA strikes, in no small part because a major part of artists’ concerns involves AI infringement on creatives’ compensation, available work, and intellectual property rights. And I keep a file of articles on the subject of large-language-model AI, especially as relates to creative work.

Read more: “Advocating for Yourself as a Writer

Join the Authors Guild if you can.

If the Hollywood strikes teach authors nothing else, it should be the incalculable value of having a union with collective strength and resources to effectively protect and advocate for creators. The Authors Guild offers access to legal advice and guidance, along with the power of a union to advocate for members—plus resources like web-building guidance, educational events, even insurance and discounts.

Talk to a trademark/IP lawyer about protecting your work.

Not everything is trademark/copyright eligible—or practical—and the laws and rules are vast and hairy. But consider speaking to someone who may be able to advise you, at least, on which assets can and perhaps should be protected.

And I always advocate hiring an IP attorney to look over any contract an author is considering signing, if that’s financially feasible for you. It’s a relatively small investment in safeguarding yourself against obscure or sneaky language that can cost you a lot more down the road.

Another Authors Guild benefit is access to legal advice in the areas of contract, copyright, etc., and there are good, reputable online sites like Legal Zoom and Zen Business that offer legal resources a lot less expensively than most typical practices.

Be careful what you share and where.

I know authors who feed their storylines, outlines, summaries, even full manuscripts into ChatGPT so their “AI assistant” can write their synopsis or query letter or offer ideas or editing help.

More and more authors have started using AI as a tool—but there’s a dark side: You are entering your work, your words, and your product into the database that it will use to regurgitate material to other users—effectively meaning you are freely giving away your intellectual property to be plagiarized without credit or compensation, by the machine and by other users.

This is a main plank of the advocacy the Authors Guild and many high-profile authors are doing to encourage regulation of the fast-metastasizing AI industry: more than 10,000 authors (including literary luminaries) have signed an open letter to CEOs of tech firms working with AI technology to safeguard author rights to the reams of their material being fed into the machine for it to regurgitate for public use without credit or compensation.

Read more: “What Does AI Mean for Writers? I Asked It

Monitor your work.

Get into the habit of checking major sites—Amazon, Goodreads, etc.—periodically to see whether all the books identified as yours really are.

Keep in mind that other authors may legitimately share your name (there are at least two other Phoebe Fox authors I know of, besides my own pen name)—but you want to make sure their works aren’t being attributed to you. As Jane Friedman points out, this kind of appropriation is a far greater threat to authors’ livelihoods and careers than simple piracy of their work.

Report and advocate.

If you see an AI fake for your work—or any other author’s—report it: to the site, and to the author if possible. Go as public with it as you can. Squeaky wheels get the grease. The more complaints companies hear, the quicker they’ll act.

Call your lawmakers.

It’s essential that regulations are put in place and strictly enforced as soon as possible. AI is developing at lightning pace, and without oversight and enforcement, more abuses are likely to happen. Contact your congressional representatives (you can find yours here) and ask them what they’re doing to introduce and support legislation related to artificial intelligence.

The Future of AI and Art

Years ago I copyedited a staggeringly good book by Laurie Frankel called Goodbye for Now, in which a man whose beloved wife dies re-creates her virtually via a software program so he can continue to talk to her. It felt thrillingly creepy to me at the time…but now it seems prescient.

I can foresee whole industries springing up around similar ideas: Lose a loved one? We’ll scour the internet for their fingerprint and bring them back to life. Wish your favorite author had written more books? We’ll create some based on their style and voice—fan fiction on steroids. Who features in your sex fantasies? We’ll make it happen.

When I voice ideas like this, I hear the Chicken Little panic in my own words. And yet how implausible is this type of eventuality? It’s already happening—identity theft on the most foundational, violating level.

Read more: “Will AI Replace Writers? It Already Is

What’s driving so many AI fakes now is the same thing that always drives scams and unethical actions (and often corporate behavior)—money. As long as there’s a way to profit off AI-generated content, someone is going to exploit it, at least until we have laws to curtail it, and companies have clearer and stronger policies and procedures to stop it.

And there’s an even greater horror in all this, to me—that eventually AI will iterate so many versions of both original material and fake versions, all fed back into it in an endless Mobius loop, that eventually it may become impossible to actually parse the actual truth—in writing or in any other area.

You think we’re polarized now…imagine trying to counter not just artist identity theft, but conspiracy theories and outright lies in a world with no provable objective fact—an endless nightmare funhouse-mirror reflection of misinformation and propaganda, distorting reality beyond reason’s ability to combat it.

In my sleepless nights I hope I’m simply seeing the sky falling when it’s just a hail of acorns. But in any case, we may be in for a lot of thunks on the head until we figure it out.

If all of us do all we can to make sure that the people who can do something about it—government and corporate entities—act, and act fast, maybe we can corral the monster in its cage before it rampages through society.

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Weigh in, authors (or calm my fears). What do you worry about with AI? What have you seen or heard about that gives you hope, or raises a red alert? Are you comfortable using AI for your own work, and if so, how?

16 Comments. Leave new

  • I will not use it. Period.

    Reply
    • I can’t blame you–though I suspect it may go the way of the internet, cell phones, and social media in that it becomes such common currency of our society, we’re all going to eventually wind up using it to some degree. (Nobody resisted these things more than me…. 🙂 ) Google is already working on using AI in searches, and I just heard from another reader that Word is building it into future iterations of the program. We may be using it whether we want to or not. Thanks for the comment, Robin.

      Reply
  • I have BIGTIME concerns around books generated with AI. My work is all about producing author events, not producing events for robots.

    Reply
    • I hear you, Jill! One thing I think this might engender, though, is increasing importance of live events like that, where we have human connection. AI can’t replicate that, and I think we’ll increasingly crave it.

      Reply
  • Thank you, Tiffany, for keeping the outrage going on this … outrage. I read Jane’s initial post on the thievery and was struck by all the potential mayhem this could portend. I am a freelance editor, but contract exclusively with one company. Our business has all but dried up in the past few months–I’ve received exactly one sample edit request since April, compared to at least one every two weeks or so. I initially joked that the AI bots were stealing my business, but now I wonder if the joke’s on me.
    I have some possibly ignorant or naive questions about all this: Who exactly does the dirty work of creating these faux Jane Friedman books? Are these the same scammers who send myriad emails in which victims click on the links and have their identities stolen? And, unless it’s done on a mass scale, it’s hard to see how significant money can be made selling crappy, AI-produced versions of reputable authors.
    Jim Davis

    Reply
    • I’m sorry to hear this is already affecting you and your business, Jim. I think we may be in for more of that.

      As far as who is doing it–that’s a great question, and one I wondered myself. Jane succeeded in getting the books taken down, but I’m not sure about finding out who did it–or doing anything about it. As I said in the post, at this point I’m not sure this is even technically illegal. And yes, there are certainly limitations on the money scammers can make this way–or it seems there would be–but maybe not, or I guess they wouldn’t do it.

      I’m wondering if this is just the first wave of people trying to see how to monetize AI in whatever way, aboveboard or not–shooting arrows to see what hits the target. Jane has a big following, so they must have thought they could capitalize on her reputation. It sure has made me more mindful of watching for phony titles out there! Thanks for the comment.

      Reply
  • This is truly frightening and angering. Many of us have a brand based not only on writing that our readers connect with, but integrity and accuracy. AI can rapidly destroy our reputations and profits. It’s threatening for authors whose reputations are not yet made, also. This new phenomenon means that if new authors succeed in reaching the readers they want to connect with, AI can hijack their current and future rewards, including stealing one’s future reach, reputation, and financial success. This sounds so demotivating. And few have the resources of time, money, or emotional energy to fight it. I had to battle an actual human being regarding trademark, and that was awful enough–taking thousands of dollars and more than a year. Fighting the machines sounds infinitely more exhausting.

    So I don’t think you’re overreacting. I do think getting online distributors to care enough to respond to author complaints is going to be a nightmare, just as Jane Friedman found; and legal recourse is expensive and takes time. Calls to the government are quick, but the results are usually slow. More than anything, when I read about Jane Friedman’s experience, and your valid points, I felt a giant Ugh. I’m one of the lucky ones who can follow the advice… But it sucks a lot of joy out of my work, knowing it can be plagiarized at any moment, with low odds of any negative consequence to anyone but me and my readers.

    Reply
    • Agreed, Duana–it’s all the work and time and goodwill that goes into creating a strong, identifiable, trustworthy brand that people like this are trying to capitalize on–and endangering for the people who have done that work. I’m really hopeful that all this is so new that corporations have just been slow to respond, but that hopefully they will get some guardrails in place–and that we’ll get meaningful, enforceable legislation around it too. (Though at the pace Congress works, who knows when that will be.) I think if we all squawk loudly enough, though, we may be able to speed the process, at least among book sites. Anyway, I’m certainly taking action to protect myself now that I see how easily people can take advantage. Thanks for the comment! Always lovely to see you here.

      Reply
  • It just makes me sad. As consumers, we need to educate ourselves on what we’re getting when we buy a book. As a follower of Jane’s, I can look at the cover of those fake-authored books on Amazon and immediately tell they are NOT written by her. Sort of like getting a spammy text or email where the wording is slightly off. You can just tell when something is a fake. But, this is just the beginning. AI is in the early stages. What happens when it’s so good you can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what isn’t?

    Reply
    • That’s my fear–these fakes may be identifiable now, but for how long, given how quickly the technology improves? And you’ve put your finger on my even bigger underlying fear–that we lose the ability to distinguish between real and fake entirely. And then what happens not only to art, but to society? This is what keeps me up at night. 🙁

      Thanks for the comment–at least it’s good to know I’m not alone in these fears!

      Reply
  • Julie A Kortidis
    August 20, 2023 9:40 am

    Is it real or is it Memorex? A commercial advertisement remembered by those past fifty years of age. Copywrite laws for all Intellectual Property including images. I think we are already at a point of questioning, “Is it real or is it AI?” We need to develop our intuitive natures or we’ll be taken in by every charlatan around… or are we already?

    Reply
    • Ha–I remember that ad too. I wish it were as simple as dev eloping discernment for real versus fake–but we already see how frighteningly realistic deep-fake videos are becoming. I don’t think it can be long before AI-generated writing becomes indistinguishable from human either…it’s already eerily convincing, if not always polished or sophisticated. But give it time, I fear. Thanks for being here and sharing the panic. 😉

      Reply
  • Just getting around to reading your cogent summation of AI. Thank you. I’ve been commenting on various posts, from well known authors, publishers and aggregators, who support the use of AI, that I see it transforming the author community into a litigious community. AI has enormous potential in science, technology, and medicine. However, I strongly agree that federal legislation needs to be enacted to protect all creatives. Whenever I see one of these ‘industry leaders’ comment that authors should use AI to help with keywords, book descriptions, story ideas, completing paragraphs, creating titles or breaking through writer’s block, etc. I’m reminded of what John Wayne said in one of his movies, “Mister, you need to find yourself another line of work. This one sure don’t fit your pistol.” Perhaps The Duke should have also advised everyone to ‘follow the money trail instead’.

    Reply
    • Thanks for weighing in, Mac. I share a lot of your concerns–including that we come to lean so heavily on AI that we lose something of our creativity–and our humanity. I remember when cell phones came out, people worried that no longer remembering phone numbers was a sign of our overreliance on technology and that we’d increasingly lose brainpower. This seems like that on steroids.

      Then again, I worry that I’m always a Luddite resisting new tech, and maybe this is just the next step in our evolution toward freeing up more brain space for other pursuits…? I don’t know–I tend to like to do things a little old-fashioned, and organically–meaning I like to generate my own ideas and struggle through challenges on my own. It’s how I learn, and how I work out solutions. But I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t used AI for things like offering suggestions of books I can use for specific course I’m creating, for instance (like multiple-POV titles, etc.), or even to generate outlines for them that I then check against my own work to make sure I haven’t missed anything I would want to include. I know there’s good and bad in most technological advances–social media has both polarized us and brought us closer in ways, for instance–but I sure have reservations abotu this one.

      Reply
  • It is concerning when I hear other authors speak so flippantly about their use of AI (ChatGPT in particular). All the concerns noted in your post, I share. Moreover I worry that publishers will pay less and take on even fewer new authors when they can have AI produce manuscripts for free. Whose to know if that name on the cover is a pseudonym or a bot?

    Reply
    • Agreed–I think we might be a little too easy/comfortable with it, before we really know what effect it may have on our industry, and of course what it may do with the info we’re feeding into it. And yep, the concerns you mention are among my LONG list of them. I’m the first to admit I’m a Luddite who resists change and tech, but in this case I don’t think I’m overreacting. I guess we’ll see…. 🙁

      Reply

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