In the battle of Hollywood writers against AI, humans win (for now)

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After a 148-day strike, Hollywood screenwriters secured major barriers against the use of artificial intelligence in one of the first major labor battles over generative AI in the workplace.

During the nearly five-month strike, no issue resonated more than the use of AI in scriptwriting. What was once a seemingly minor demand from the Writers Guild of America has become an existential rallying cry.

The strike was also about the economics of the streaming era, minimums and writers' room waste, which isn't exactly compelling picketing material. But the threat of AI vividly presents the plight of writers as a clash between humans and machines, with widespread implications for other industries facing a radically new kind of automation.

In the coming weeks, WGA members will vote on whether to ratify a tentative agreement, which requires studios and production companies to disclose to writers whether any material they have been given has been partially or entirely generated by AI. AI cannot be a credited writer. AI cannot write or rewrite “literary material.” AI-generated writing cannot be source material. "AI-generated material cannot be used to undermine a writer's credit or separate rights," the proposed contract says.

Many experts see the writers' agreement as a harbinger of future labor battles.

“I hope it will be a model for many other content creation industries,” said Tom Davenport, professor of information technology at Babson College and author of “All-in on AI: How Smart Companies Win Big with Artificial Intelligence.” » “This practically guarantees that if you are going to use AI, it will be humans working alongside it. “For me, that has always been the best way to use any form of AI.”

The tentative agreement between the Writers Guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which negotiates on behalf of the studios, does not prohibit all uses of artificial intelligence. Both sides have recognized that it can be a valuable tool in many aspects of filmmaking, including screenwriting.

The agreement states that writers can use AI if the company authorizes it. But a company cannot require a writer to use artificial intelligence software.

Language around AI became a sticking point in the writers' negotiations, which dragged on last week in part because of the challenges of negotiating over such a rapidly evolving technology.

When the writers' strike began on May 2, just five months after OpenAI launched ChatGPT, the AI ​​chatbot that can write essays, have sophisticated conversations, and craft stories from a handful of prompts. Studios said it was too early to address AI in these negotiations and preferred to wait until 2026.

In the end, they debated the terms and noted that perspectives are sure to change. According to the draft contract, “the parties recognize that the legal landscape around the use of (generative AI) is uncertain and developing rapidly.” The companies and the union agreed to meet at least twice a year during the three years of the contract.

At the same time, there are no prohibitions on studios using proprietary scripts to train artificial intelligence systems. The WGA left those issues to the legal system to analyze. One clause notes that writers reserve the right to claim that their work has been exploited to train artificial intelligence software.

That has been an increasingly prominent concern in the literary world. Last week, 17 authors, including John Grisham, Jonathan Franzen, and George RR Martin, filed a lawsuit against OpenAI alleging “systematic theft on a massive scale” of their copyrighted books.

The terms reached by the WGA are sure to be closely watched by others, particularly striking members of the SAG-AFTRA actors union.

“This is the first step in a long process of negotiating and analyzing what generative AI means for the creative industry, not just for writers but also for visual artists, actors, you name it,” says David Gunkel, professor of studies. of media in northern Illinois. University and author of “Person, Thing, Robot”.

The actors, on strike since July 14, also demand better compensation from streaming. But they also demand safeguards against AI, which can potentially use a star's image without their permission or replace background actors entirely.

Attempts to adopt AI “as normal operating procedure” are “literally dehumanizing the workforce,” actor Bryan Cranston recently said at a picket line. “It is not good for society. It is not good for our environment. “It’s not good for working-class families.”

In other developments, SAG-AFTRA members voted overwhelmingly on Monday in favor of a strike authorization against video game companies. The use of AI in games is a particularly acute concern for broadcasters.

Some skeptics doubt that the authors have made significant progress in AI. Media mogul Barry Diller, president of digital media company IAC, believes not enough was done.

"They spent months trying to craft words to protect writers from AI, and they ended up with a paragraph that didn't protect anything from anyone," Diller told CNBC.

Robert D. Atkinson, president of the technology policy think tank Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, said limiting AI is unproductive.

“If we ban the use of tools to make organizations more productive, we are condemning ourselves to stagnation,” Atkinson writes on X, formerly known as Twitter.

What most observers agree on, however, is that this was just the first of many AI labor disputes. Gunkel hopes that both writers and studios will continue to experiment with AI.

“We are so early in this that no one is able to anticipate everything that could emerge with generative AI in the creative industries,” Gunkel said. "We're going to see the need again and again to revisit many of these questions."

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