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Montreal writers want more protections as AI sucks up their stories

Detective Émile Cinq-Mars races to crack the case before the next car bomb erupts on the streets of Montreal.

Trevor Ferguson, who writes crime fiction under the name "John Farrow," has penned hundreds of pages in which his detective muse locks up the city's criminals. 

But weeks ago, Ferguson says he was shocked to discover seven of his novels were among the 183,000 books used for artificial intelligence training, as reported by The Atlantic. AI companies used his words, characters and plots without compensating him or asking for his consent. 

Using the data from his stories, the AI can generate writing that mimics his storytelling. Now, he fears detective Cinq-Mars may be solving mysteries in sequels written by machine. 

"This is but another dagger in the heart of writers worldwide," said Ferguson. "Essentially they're using our work as the engines for our own destruction."

Along with other writers from Montreal, Ferguson is calling for measures to protect the livelihoods of authors threatened by companies trying to turn a profit at their expense. 

In September, the Authors Guild in the United States launched a class-action lawsuit — on behalf of fiction authors like George Saunders and Jonathan Franzen — against OpenAI for copyright infringement, calling it a "systemic theft on a mass scale." 

These claims have not yet been tested in court.

Lending its support for the Authors Guild, the Writers' Union of Canada put out a statement saying it suspects the works were ingested from pirated ebooks and may launch its own class-action lawsuit in the coming weeks. The Quebec Writers' Federation (QWF) told CBC News it would consider supporting it. 

A man sposes for a photo.
Tevor Ferguson, who writes crime fiction under the name 'John Farrow,' says crime writers who write books with simplistic plots are more likely to be replaced. (Tevor Ferguson/Facebook)

'Genre' writers first in line to be replaced

Authors of what is often labelled "genre" writing — including mystery, fantasy, horror and science fiction — will be first in line to be replaced, Ferguson says.

"They can just be utterly replaced if they do a simple kind of crime novel because all someone would have to do is [say] … 'give me this character, give me this situation, give me this geographic location' and let AI create a new book for them," he said. 

All this comes at a time when writers are already making significantly less income than they did in the past and there are fewer writing gigs available for them to use to fund their creative projects, making writing a novel increasingly unaffordable, says Ferguson. The author worked odd jobs for many years to support his writing before finally finding success with his detective series. 

A photo of a computer screen.
Asked to compose a piece of writing in the style of Montreal writer Heather O'Neill, ChatGPT spits out a response in seconds. (Joe Bongiorno/CBC)

Devaluing the work writers do

For Heather O'Neill, the idea of machines churning out poems denigrates the people putting pen to paper to tell stories. When she heard her words and metaphors were scraped by AI, she said it felt like a "violation." 

"It's taking away from the human experience and the value of human experience," O'Neill said.

This is just another example of how artists — habitually asked to work for little or no payment at all —  are getting ripped off — and it only adds to the myth that the work artists do is free and can be stolen without a second thought, she says. 

Four of her books were used for AI training.

Rosemary Sullivan calls it a "robbery," one that threatens to upend the pathways by which authors and their editors get books out into readers' hands.  

Three of her nonfiction books were fed into the AI.

A woman poses for a photo.
'I don't know how writers go on strike, but there has to be a sense that the intellectual integrity of modern culture is being deeply compromised,' Rosemary Sullivan, poet and non-fiction author. (Susanna Gordon)

"Why would you go to a publisher to publish books if you could just reproduce this stuff online?" 

Sullivan backs the lawsuit, but she says laws need to be passed to stop piracy at its source. 

"There has to be some kind of legal recourse, some kind of legislative response against AI appropriating material like this," she said.

"I don't know how writers go on strike, but there has to be a sense that the intellectual integrity of modern culture is being deeply compromised."

John Degen, CEO of the Writers' Union of Canada, says protecting writers and their work from technology companies is an old, ongoing fight.

"This kind of stuff has been going on behind the scenes in the background of the digital revolution for decades now in fact, and writer organizations like mine have been tracking it and fighting it for just as long," he said.

Degen points to the example of Google scanning millions of books for its digital library, a move that defeated an Authors Guild lawsuit after a decade-long legal battle. 

Recently, an American author fought Amazon to remove from its site five AI-generated books published under her name by someone else. 

But the problem of taking writers' work without payment goes beyond state-of-the-art technologies.

In a 2018 report, before the advent of AI bots, the Writers' Union of Canada found that writers in the country were making 78 per cent less income than they did in 1998, citing schools copying writers' work without remunerating them as a driving force behind the steep decline. 

"Any way writers are losing compensation is important and if that scale is going to even increase, of course that's concerning," said Crystal Chan, vice-president of the QWF. The organization is currently holding a series of talks for its Writing Matters campaign, including one earlier this month about AI and the future of writing. 

"The idea is [we], as a society, need to stop undervaluing writers," said Chan.

A picture of a computer screen.
ChatGPT responds to a prompt after being asked to write a story in the style of crime writer John Farrow. (Joe Bongiorno/CBC)

Scoring protections from publishers 

Sean Michaels's latest novel,  Do You Remember Being Born? explores the tense relationship between authors and AI. He started writing the book a few years ago when he came across GPT-2, a precursor to ChatGPT, and experimented with the technology. In the book, the protagonist befriends a poetry bot that reshapes the way she sees the world. 

Although Michaels is excited by the possibilities the technology offers for creating compelling art, he has his share of concerns too. 

In fact, his first novel, Us Conductors, was used for AI training. 

Michaels says he would support a Canadian class-action lawsuit, but he also believes writers may be better off focusing less on suing for copyright violations and focusing more on negotiating with book publishers for better protections. 

"As well as being worried about being exploited by wealthy AI companies, I'm also worried and even more worried about publishers and publications …. using AI to diminish the value of my labour and not being paid as well by what were my past employers [and] future employers," he said.

Canadian writers should follow the example of Hollywood screenwriters who hit the picket line and demanded the film studios put guardrails in their contracts to protect them from AI, he said. Thanks to negotiations, studios are barred from using AI to write scripts or edit scripts that a screenwriter has already produced. Studios also cannot ask a writer to work on an AI-generated script for less credit or wages than they would get had it been created from scratch.

"By doing that they're safeguarding writers' ability to make a good living, and I see none of that happening in publishing," Michaels said. 

OpenAI did not respond to CBC's request for comment, but the company told CBC last month that it was cooperating with the Authors Guild to understand concerns over AI. 

"We respect the rights of writers and authors and believe they should benefit from AI technology," it said in a statement — without addressing allegations of piracy.  

Featured VideoHundreds of writers have learned that their books have been used to train artificial intelligence to spit out imitations. Bestselling authors Sean Michaels and Linwood Barclay discuss what AI might mean for human creativity and artist compensation.