Nov 2023

AI Startup Anthropic Singing the Blues After Being Sued for Copyright Infringement

A group of major music publishers, including Universal Music, recently sued AI startup Anthropic in federal court in Nashville for copyright infringement. According to the publishers’ complaint, Anthropic engaged in “mass copying and ingestion” of song lyrics whose copyrights are owned by the publishers and displayed those lyrics to users of “Claude,” Anthropic’s artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot without a license. In addition to providing users with the lyrics on demand, the complaint also alleges that Claude generated output that copied the publishers’ lyrics even when it wasn’t explicitly asked to do so, for example, when asked to “write a song about a certain topic” or to write “in the style of a certain artist or songwriter.”

Musical Composition Copyrights

The Anthropic case focuses on musical composition copyrights, which are not the same as sound recording copyrights. A sound recording copyright protects the performance of a song by the singer and musicians as preserved in some form of audio media such as a vinyl album or digital mp3 file.

A musical composition copyright, on the other hand, protects the notated music and written words that make up the song. The musical composition can be written down in the form of musical notation with lyrics, as it often is on sheet music, or it can also be protected if it’s preserved as part of a sound recording.

Anthropic is accused of having its AI system “read,” copy, and then use and display the publishers’ music lyrics in response to user queries posed to its Claude chatbot. While at first blush, this might not sound all that unusual – after all, there are plenty of sites on the Internet where you can search for and read lyrics to your favorite songs – the issue the publishers have with Anthropic is that, according to the complaint, Anthropic didn’t have a license to do any of the things they say it was doing with their lyrics.

A Copyright Is Really a Bundle of Rights

A copyright gives the owner of a protected work more than one kind of right. It’s really a bundle of rights, and the owner is generally free to license or not to license any, all, or none of those rights. (Though there is such a thing as a “compulsory license” for musical compositions, that’s not an issue in the Anthropic lawsuit.)

Specifically, the owner of a musical composition copyright has the “exclusive rights to do and to authorize” anyone to do the following:

  • Reproduce the musical composition;
  • Distribute copies of the musical composition to the public;
  • Perform the copyrighted work publicly;
  • Display the copyrighted work publicly;
  • Prepare “derivative works” based on the copyrighted work.

Each of these rights can be separately licensed to someone who wants to take advantage of that type of right. Most reputable music lyric websites, for example, have licensed the rights to reproduce and display those lyrics from the music publishers who own the copyrights. In this case, the music publishers are accusing Anthropic of violating their rights to reproduce, distribute, and publicly display the musical compositions and to prepare derivative works based on those compositions.

According to the complaint, Anthropic violated the publishers’ right to reproduce when it “trained” its AI systems by having the systems “read” and copy the lyrics as those systems scoured the Internet for information. In addition, Anthropic is accused of violating the publishers’ distribution and display rights when it generated and showed those lyrics to Claude users, who asked the chatbot to do so. The publishers also allege that in many cases, Claude would create “derivative works” – a work based on and incorporating part of an existing copyrighted work – by generating responses to user queries that included portions of the publishers’ copyrighted musical compositions.

But Isn’t This What All Search Engines Do?

The difference between a typical Google-type search (before Google began incorporating AI-generated responses) and what Anthropic is accused of doing is that a Google search would provide you with a list of links, not the ultimate answer itself.

For example, if you were looking for the lyrics to “Be Our Guest” from Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” Google would not generate those lyrics for you. Instead, it would provide links to third-party websites that its search algorithm said would likely have the lyrics you were looking for. You had to go to one of those third-party sites to view the lyrics, and, in many cases, that site had a license with the music publisher to display those lyrics. The complaint alleges that Anthropic’s chatbot Claude, on the other hand, would provide the lyrics directly even though Anthropic had no license to do so.

Claude May Have Changed Its Tune

Speaking of “Be Our Guest,” a recent search made less than two weeks after the music publishers’ lawsuit was filed asked Anthropic’s Claude chatbot the following question: “Can you show me the lyrics for the song “Be Our Guest” from “Beauty and the Beast”?

Claude responded, “Unfortunately, I cannot provide full song lyrics due to copyright restrictions.” Claude went on to broadly summarize the song, noting that “It’s an upbeat, Broadway-style song that highlights the castle’s enchanted staff and their dedication to making Belle feel comfortable and cared for during her stay.” At the end of its summary, Claude went on to say, “I hope this helps provide the essence of the song without infringing on copyrighted material.”

It appears that in addition to song lyrics, Claude may have also recently learned something about damage control.

Questions About Copyright?

Carrie Ward has years of experience in entertainment, communications, and media law. Having worked with the in-house legal departments at ABC and Entercom Communications (now called Audacy), Carrie has a deep understanding of copyright law that she uses to help clients, including media group owners, podcasters, filmmakers, and musicians.

In addition to her intellectual property expertise, Carrie is very well-versed in promotions and advertising law, has prosecuted thousands of FCC applications of various types, and often serves as outside general counsel to her corporate clients.