The search for methods of reining in technology companies’ unauthorized copying of copyrighted materials to build generative AI models was the primary theme of this year's annual meeting of the Association of American Publishers, held May 9 over Zoom.

Youngsuk "YS" Chi, chairman of Elsevier, director of corporate affairs for the RELX Group, and AAP chair, minced no words in kicking off the meeting, declaring that the business models of most large language model producers are founded on "illegally" mining copyrighted works. Moreover, Chi said, the tech companies producing such tools don’t even pretend what they are doing is legal, but argue that breaking the law will be worth it in the long run.

Other speakers picked up on that theme, including AAP CEO Maria Pallante, who declared the current period to be “the most complex time in the history of publishing.” The foremost challenge for the publishing community, Pallante continued, is advocating for new laws and policies that can protect publishers as changes in technology move at a rapid pace.

Acknowledging that new AI tools have “far-reaching potential,” Pallante echoed Chi in insisting that most are based on the illegal copying of millions of books and other published works. The technology companies’ actions have led to 24 AI copyright suits in the United States, “some with claims so similar and urgent that courts have begun to consolidate them,” Pallante said. Conceding that there is no “silver bullet for regulating AI,” Pallante argued that solutions go beyond what the publishing community can do alone.

“To protect society, we will need a forward-thinking scheme of legal rules and enforcement authority across numerous jurisdictions and disciplines—not only intellectual property, but also national security, trade, privacy, consumer protection, and human rights, to name a few,” Pallante said. “And we will need ethical conduct.”

The two featured guest speakers at the meeting both stressed that time is of the essence if publishing and other intellectual property–based companies are to be successful in preventing tech companies from running roughshod over copyright laws in their race to build AI tools.

“I think in general, moving quickly is important,” said Ed Newton-Rex, founder of advocacy group Fairly Trained, in response to a question from AAP executive v-p of global policy Lui Simpson about what publishers can do to compel tech companies to follow copyright laws. “Now is an absolutely critical time, and I think that if publishers and other creative industries leave it too long, you'll start to get more synthetic data.”

Newton-Rex began in the generative AI space in 2010, and now leads the Fairly Trained, which launched in January as a nonprofit that seeks to certify AI companies that don't train models on copyrighted work without creators’ consent (Pallante is an advisor for the company.) He founded the nonprofit after leaving a tech company, Stability, that declined to use a licensing model to get permission to use copyrighted materials in training. Stability, Newton-Rex said, “argues that you can train on whatever you want. And it's a fair use in the United States, and I think this is not only incorrect, but I think it's ethically unforgivable. And I think we have to fight it with everything we have.”

“The old rules of copyright are gone,” said Maria Ressa, cofounder of the online news company Rappler and winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, in her keynote. “We are literally standing on the rubble of the world that was. If we don’t recognize it, we can’t rebuild it.”

Ressa added that, in a social media world drowning in misinformation and manipulation, “it is crucial that we get back to facts.” Messa advised publishers to “hold the line” in protecting their IP, and to continue to defend the importance of truth: “You cannot have rule of law if you do not have integrity of facts.”

Fighting for the Freedom to Read

The other major topic of the meeting was AAP’s efforts to defend freedom of expression in the U.S. In his remarks, Chi said that he is “deeply troubled by government efforts to restrict reading and politicize science.”

In a brief presentation, two AAP staff members provided updates on major initiatives. Shelley Husband, executive v-p of government affairs, said that AAP continues to oppose efforts by states to require publishers to license e-books to libraries under specific terms. Last March, AAP joined the Protect the Creative Economy Coalition, which was formed in order to combat a growing number of new library e-book bills surfacing in state legislatures in 2023.

Husband also discussed the efforts AAP is making to prevent the Department of Education from moving college student participation in Inclusive Access programs from opt-out to opt-in. Under the program, which many publishers and college retailers participate in, students pay for college materials as part of tuition or another fee. Such publishers and retailers as Barnes & Noble Education say the program lowers the costs of materials for students.

Last year, AAP also ramped up its efforts to challenge a number of book banning laws across the country. AAP general counsel Terry Hart warned that, in spite of such successful AAP-backed lawsuits over the freedom to read as those in Arkansas and Texas, “the book banning surge is continuing.” Hart also addressed the long-running lawsuit against the Internet Archive, noting that oral arguments in IA’s appeal of the ruling, which came down on the side of the publishers, would likely take place in the fall.