Whose Image Is It Anyway? | Pushing the Wave

Whose Image Is It Anyway?

The Use of AI Art for Book Covers

Opinion, 16 June 2023
by L.A. Davenport
French Dog in Space - An AI Generated Image
French Dog in Space: An AI-generated image
Recently, I talked about artificial intelligence, or AI, in relation to ChatGPT, observing that our over-reaction to what is, at base, a rather simple concept, and our over-use of a technology that is more about entertainment than anything else, are the most problematic aspects of all the hoo-ha surrounding its launch.

Since then, the issue seems only to have worsened, with the over-hype extending into almost every aspect of modern existence, it would seem. This has, in turn, garnered increasingly shrill predictions of the end of life as we know it.

I state again, this has nothing to do with the technology but everything to do with our apparent inability to look at anything ChatGPT, or any other emergent technology, in a rational and calm manner. That and our inability to resist the temptation to anthropomorphise inanimate objects or technologies, especially when the tech in question can ‘talk’ back to us.

This week, however, I have been contemplating an entirely different use of AI-driven technology, that of image generation. The aspect that piqued my interest, over an above some rather fun experiments (see above), was that of book covers, naturally enough.
Damon Freeman, founder and creative director of the book design agency Damonza, recently published a four blog post discussion of the use of AI-generated images in cover design, starting with look at the potential legal and ethical aspects of including them on clients’ books.

In the first post, he explains that an AI tool for generating art train “itself as an artist using huge databases of images” [I take issue with the idea of calling the tool an artist, but I won’t go into that here]. This, he says, immediately poses an ethical dilemma.

“Many people are concerned, and not without reason, that these training images were used without permission from copyright holders,” he writes. “This leads many people to assume that generative AI simply pieces existing images together to make a ‘new’ image, or worse, that it copies works directly, and therefore violates copyright laws.”

Freeman continues: “But the truth is that generative AI doesn’t produce collages or copies – it creates things that are entirely new. This hypothesis is simple to test: we can ask it to create something that has never existed before.”

Giving several amusing examples, including “a rock painting of a rock concert” and “a gangster flamingo with a mullet riding a motorbike”, he then says: “Each of these ideas fell directly from my head onto the keyboard, and it’s difficult to argue that the results aren’t unique and original."

“In reality AI works in much the same way as artists and book cover designers have always worked. It studies trends, learns techniques and gains inspiration, just as all creatives study trends, learn techniques and gain inspiration.”

Freeman then explains that, in his view, AI-generated art, especially as it is given royalty-free, for now, [my note], and, for the moment, [his note] the results cannot be copyrighted (alongside most book covers), it can be used without worry.

“Initially I was concerned for the future of our business, but I soon came to realise that AI, like stock image databases and Photoshop, would simply be another tool in our toolkit.”
I completely agree with Freeman on almost all of that, and I emailed him to that effect, adding, however, I disagree on one key point.

Let’s go back to the quote above, where he says AI “works in much the same way as artists and book cover designers have always worked,” where it “studies trends, learns techniques and gains inspiration.”

Except that’s not quite the case. For the images Freeman generated using the AI tool, the inspiration was his, the execution was that of the AI.

That is why the companies give over the rights to all images, because, to take an idea from the past, my view is that the AI is the person in the workshop knocking out the sculptures to the artist’s (our) ideas and instructions. 

That is important to point out, as the notion of who created the AI images is more complicated and more reassuring than one might think. In that way, I think it absolutely justifies the use of AI for generating book covers. 

In response, Freeman pointed to his fourth column on this topic, highlighting the part where he says: “The thing that blows my mind most about generative AI is that it can even make perfect sense of the perfectly nonsensical.”

He continues: “When I say ‘it makes things that have never existed before’, I mean it. I can feed it utter garbage, nonsense prompts, and it somehow delivers accurate and wildly entertaining results. Consider the following styles that I totally made up: A GlubCore fork; A Blendretti fork; and a A FutureTech fork.”

“This scarcely believable level of creativity makes generative AI especially fantastic at the fantastical – creating things that have never before existed in the real world, and that would be all but impossible to piece together with stock images and elements."

Again, very interesting, and I feel his sense of wonder.

But to repeat myself, it was Freeman that came up with each of the ideas, no matter how wacky they seem. If he had wanted, he could have modelled some of those concepts with clay in a similar vein and taken a photo.

For me, this is the thing: He says his ideas are garbage or nonsense, but they are only viewed that way by an adult who is moulded by societal expectations. That’s why we find AI image generation so fascinating, because it’s a combines the abilities of a highly skilled draughts person with the openness of a three-year-old.

In other words, the AI does something that we as adults don’t do, but young kids do — it allows in ideas from all directions at once. It doesn’t filter, it doesn’t have fixed notions about what one can and can’t do. So it takes us literally at our word and does exactly what we ask for, like a child would.

But the ‘creator’ is still us. In my opinion.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.
This week has not only been filled with thoughts of AI. I also published a short story from my collection No Way Home.

The Lake was, unusually, inspired by a song, specifically the majestically, heartrendingly epic The Same Deep Water As You, by The Cure.

I adored the whole of their album Disintegration, but that song in particular has followed and nourished me with its dark beauty throughout the course of my life.

I don’t plumb the same intense depths now when I hear that song as I did when I was a distraught teenager, but I sense more its fragility, and the yearning for hope that Robert Smith expresses.

I talk more about how exactly the song led to The Lake via a relatively obscure Soviet film in my description of the background to No Way Home.
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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Whose Image Is It Anyway? | Pushing the Wave