Hollywood writers strike demanding limits on AI use

Thousands of film and TV writers went on strike starting Tuesday. Their demands are pretty familiar and mostly include calls for higher pay – but the union also wants studios and large streaming companies to restrict the use of artificial intelligence (AI).

The Writers Guild of America (WGA) called its first work stoppage in 15 years after failing to reach an agreement for higher pay from studios such as Disney and Netflix. The last strike in 2007-2008 lasted 100 days and cost the California economy more than $2 billion.

Similar to that occasion, the WGA, representing around 11,500 writers in New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, wants more pay and guarantees for staff. The Guild says median pay for scribes at the higher Writer and Producer level has fallen 4% over the last decade.

But the demand to regulate the use of AI is distinctly 2023. In recent months, with chatbots such as ChatGPT exploding in popularity, many artists, lawyers, and telemarketers have expressed concern about the future of their work. Now, Hollywood writers are joining their ranks.

In its list of proposals, the WGA demands that the use of AI in the Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA)-covered projects be regulated. For example, the union wants to ban AI from writing or rewriting literary material.

The WGA also wants to see studios committing to not using AI as source material. Finally, the union is adamant that the material, covered by the MBA, would not be used to train AI.

However, it seems that the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), representing the studios, wants to wait and see. According to the WGA, the other side “rejected our proposal” and “countered by offering annual meetings to discuss advancements in technology.”

The threat to the fortunes of the writers, actors, and directors looks real, even if steps into the era of AI seem small for now.

In December 2022, Apple introduced digital narration technology, a service allowing book publishers to use human-sounding AI narrators. There's concern that this innovation could displace hundreds of voice actors who make a living performing audiobooks, many of whom are members of the WGA.

However, Apple’s website says that the service will actually benefit independent authors and small publishers and that the new digitally narrated titles will complement professionally-narrated audiobooks.

Screenwriters are more worried about scripts written or rewritten by chatbots. But they do have a legal card to play. In March, the US Copyright Office said that content created entirely by algorithms is not eligible for copyright protection. Of course, if a production can be legally copied, it’s going to be much harder to monetize it.

WGA negotiators have spent the last six weeks negotiating with Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Disney, Discovery-Warner, NBC Universal, Paramount, and Sony, companies under the umbrella of AMPTP. They were unable to reach an agreement.

"Although we negotiated with the intent of making a fair deal—and though your strike vote gave us the leverage to make some gains—the studios’ responses to our proposals have been wholly insufficient, given the existential crisis writers are facing,” WGA said.

“The companies' behavior has created a gig economy inside a union workforce, and their immovable stance in this negotiation has betrayed a commitment to further devaluing the profession of writing.”

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