Universal Music Group — the music company that represents superstars including Sting, The Weeknd, Nicki Minaj and Ariana Grande — has a new Goliath to contend with: artificial intelligence.
The music group sent urgent letters in April to streaming platforms including Spotify ( SPOT ) and Apple Music, asking them to block the AI platforms from learning the melodies and lyrics of songs they wrote.
The company has a “moral and commercial responsibility to our artists to work to prevent unauthorized use of their music and to stop platforms from ingesting content that infringes on the rights of artists and other creators,” a spokesperson for Universal Music Group, or UMG, told CNN. “We expect our platform partners to want to prevent their services from being used in ways that harm artists.”
UMG’s move, first reported by the Financial Times, aims to prevent artificial intelligence from posing an existential threat to the industry.
Artificial intelligence, and AI music in particular, learns by training on existing works on the Internet or through a library of music provided to the AI by humans.
UMG says it’s not against the technology itself, but rather the AI, which is so advanced it can recreate melodies and even musicians’ voices in seconds. That could threaten UMG’s rich library of music and artists that generate billions of dollars in revenue.
“UMG’s success is due in part to embracing new technology and putting it to work for our creators – as we have been doing with our own innovations around AI for some time,” UMG said in a statement on Monday. “However, training generative AI using our artists’ music … raises the question of which side of the story all stakeholders in the music ecosystem want to be on.”
The company said AI using artists’ music violates UMG agreements and copyright law. UMG sends requests to streamers asking them to download AI-generated songs.
“I understand the intent behind this move, but I’m not sure how effective it will be, as AI services will likely still have access to copyrighted material one way or another,” said Carl Foulkes, entertainment and business attorney at The Fowlkes Company.
There are no regulations that dictate what AI can and cannot train. But last month, in response to individuals seeking copyright for AI-generated works, the US Copyright Office released new guidelines on how to register literary, musical and artistic works made with AI.
“In the case of works containing AI-generated material, the Office will consider whether the AI contribution is the result of ‘mechanical reproduction’ or rather ‘the author’s own original mental conception to which [the author] gave visible form,” the new guide says.
Copyright will be determined on a case-by-case basis, the guide continues, based on how the AI tool works and how it was used to create the final piece or work.
The US Copyright Office has announced that it will also seek public input on how the law should apply to copyrighted works on which AI trains and how the office should treat those works.
“AI companies using copyrighted works to train their models to create similar works is exactly the type of behavior that the Copyright Office and the courts should expressly prohibit. Original art is meant to be protected by law, not works created by machines that have used the original art to create a new work,” Fowlkes said.
But according to artificial intelligence experts, it’s not that simple.
“You can mark your site not to be searched. But it’s a request – you can’t prevent it. You can just ask someone not to do it,” said Shelly Palmer, a professor of advanced media at Syracuse University.
For example, a website can implement a robots.txt file that works as a guardrail to control which URLs “search engines” can access to a site, according to Google. But this is not a stopping point, an avoidance option.
Grammy-winning DJ and producer David Guetta proved in February how easy it is to create new music with the help of AI. Using ChatGPT for lyrics and Uberduck for vocals, Guetta was able to create a new song in an hour.
The result was a rap with a voice that sounded just like Eminem. He played the song at one of his concerts in February, but said he would never release it commercially.
“What I think is very interesting about AI is that it raises the question of what it is to be an artist,” Guetta told CNN last month.
Guetta believes that artificial intelligence will have a significant impact on the music industry, so he embraces it rather than fighting it. But he admits there are still questions about copyright.
“It’s an ethical issue that needs to be addressed because it sounds crazy to me that I can write lyrics today and it’s going to sound like Drake is rapping it or Eminem,” he said.
And that’s exactly what UMG wants to avoid. The music group likens AI music to “deep fakes, fraud and denying artists their due remuneration”.
“These cases show why platforms have a fundamental legal and ethical responsibility to prevent their services from being used in ways that harm artists,” UMG said in a statement.
Music streamers Spotify, Apple Music and Pandora did not return a request for comment.