Every now and then, a story slips under the radar of a much larger, but closely related story. The larger story makes more headlines and attracts more attention, but the smaller story might end up having a far more lasting impact.
That seems to be happening a lot with news involving artificial intelligence and the various AI tools that have emerged in recent years. I’ve already talked about plenty, giving my opinion on the rise of ChatGPT and showing off some AI-Generated artwork I made. There’s so much going on in this field that it’s hard to keep up with, let alone discuss.
But recently, one of those little stories caught my attention. It involves the same AI-Generated art I mentioned earlier and comic books, something for which I’ve shared my passion for in many forms. And it’s a story that I don’t think is getting enough attention.
It has to do with a comic called Zarya of the Dawn, a comic created by Kris Kashtanova. It’s not published by Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Image, or any other mainstream comic publisher. You can actually download it right now for free. But what makes this comic different isn’t the story, writing, or style. It’s how it was made.
This comic was written by a person.
However, all the artwork inside was created with AI-generating art tools, most notably MidJourney.
That, in and of itself, is quite remarkable. The visuals within this book are certainly eye-catching. They might not rank on the same level as a Jim Lee or a Jack Kirby, but it’s a solid visual spectacle that brings to life a story.
For people like me, who cannot draw and don’t have the money to pay artists to depict the stories we want to tell, this is truly remarkable. I would go so far as to say it’s genuinely exciting. It shows just what’s possible with these tools. A writer with no drawing skills was able to produce this comic using only an AI art generating tool with text prompts. And the end result is stunning.
But this is where the story takes a turn. When Kashtanova attempted to copyright this comic, the US Copyright Office issued a surprising decision that might very well set a major precedent moving forward. Because the comic used AI to create the artwork, it could not be granted copyright protection. This was the exact statement, according to Ars Technica:
“We conclude that Ms. Kashtanova is the author of the Work’s text as well as the selection, coordination, and arrangement of the Work’s written and visual elements. That authorship is protected by copyright. However, as discussed below, the images in the Work that were generated by the Midjourney technology are not the product of human authorship.”
That bolded part is my doing because that’s the section with the biggest implication. This is the US Copyright Office stating outright that images and artwork created by AI can’t get copyright protection. That means that every piece of AI art you create for whatever reason can’t be owned by you in any legal sense. Because technically, you didn’t make it. The program made it for you.
Without getting too deep into the legal issues, I don’t think enough people realize the ramifications this might have for the future of the comics industry and for the art industry as a whole. On the comics side, there are actually two sides to consider.
On one, this technology will allow ordinary people with little to no art skills to produce comics with quality artwork. People who never once had the skills or means to make comics could suddenly start producing them on their own without a publisher or a skilled artist.
That means many great comics that wouldn’t have otherwise been made can be made. Great stories that once only existed with words could be brought to life through beautiful renderings.
But on the other side, the absence of copyright protection is an issue. Yes, these comics could bring to life amazing stories. However, the creators won’t be able to monetize their work, nor would they be able to stop others from using it for their own ends.
That means that, in theory, you or I could create a beautiful comic with this technology. It could find a massive audience and become a beloved story with countless fans. Then, a big company like Disney or Warner Brothers could come in, take the story and the depictions, and basically turn it into their own entertainment product. And since they have more resources and better lawyers, the creators likely wouldn’t get a penny of the profits.
This story also doesn’t account for how those same companies might use this technology to further undercut their workers and creators. Comic companies already have a not-so-great reputation for screwing over writers and artists who create iconic characters. Just look at what happened between Jack Kirby and Marvel for a hint of those issues.
If these same companies can use this same AI technology to produce more comics while not having to pay their artists or writers as much, they will do it. They’re a business. They’ll jump at any chance to pay less to get more. It’s cold, callous, and uncreative. But that’s the world we live in.
Add other tools like ChatGPT into the mix and it’s entirely possible that an AI could create an entire comic from scratch. And everything within it, from the art to the story to the characters, could not be copyrighted in any way. At a certain point, the AI might get so good that it would be hard to tell if there was ever a human creator to begin with.
These are all strange scenarios, equal parts exciting and distressing. We’re already seeing so much change as a result of these new tools, but I don’t think we’ve even seen a fraction of what’s possible. As AI technology improves, art generation and storytelling will change a great deal. The comics industry is more vulnerable than most, as Zarya of the Dawn just proved.
It’s hard to know what this will lead to. But whatever happens, it all started with this story and the precent it set.