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As you read this, the thought may occur to you, did Tom write this himself, or did he use AI to write it for him? I mean, wouldn’t it be ironic if I didn’t use AI to assist me in writing an article about authorship in the age of AI? But, that is the question I wish to tease out of this article: what matters the author if the words still have meaning to inspire, educate or amuse? As AI becomes more integrated into content creation, the role of human authors is transitioning from being authors of words to authors of intent.

If this sounds interesting at all to you, read on…

AI Advances: Writers Retreat

Over 500 journalists were laid off from news outlets in January 2024 alone.1 This, on top of over 20,000 media jobs lost in 2023 — more than in all of 2022 or 2021.2 100 employees were let go from my hometown newspaper, The Los Angeles Times (that amounts to 20% of its newsroom). Plus notable losses at The Messenger and Sports Illustrated, the latter of which created a scandal by publishing fake authors with AI-generated headshots and allegedly AI-generated content.

Amazon has been flooded with spammy books written by AI.3 These AI-generated books can be summaries of real books, fake biographies (I believe Wharton professor Ethan Mollick fell victim to this), bad fiction, and anything else you can dream up. This tsunami of AI pulp forced Amazon to promulgate a novel and absurd policy: authors are now restricted from self-publishing more than three books a day!4

On YouTube, TikTok and Reddit hundreds of tutorials have spring up, demonstrating how to make a book in just a few hours.5 Some would be authors are well meaning, viewing AI as a means to finally achieve their dream of writing the Great American novel, while others are just in it for a quick buck. Whichever way you slice it, AI is here to stay, it is advancing, and writers are in retreat.

No AIs Need Apply, for Copyright Protection

Guidance from the U.S. Copyright Office (USCO) issued a year ago makes clear that AI-created works are not entitled to copyright protection.6 The USCO has adopted a de minimis test that automatically precludes copyrightability to any portion of work in which the AI’s contribution is determined to be more than de minimis. “In the Office’s view, it is well-established that copyright can protect only material that is the product of human creativity. Most fundamentally, the term ‘author,’ which is used in both the Constitution and the Copyright Act, excludes non-humans.”7

Certainly, this cannot mean that all works that make use of any amount of AI in process of creation are denied protection. The USCO acknowledges as much: “This policy does not mean that technological tools cannot be part of the creative process. Authors have long used such tools to create their works or to recast, transform, or adapt their expressive authorship… what matters is the extent to which the human had creative control over the work’s expression and ‘actually formed’ the traditional elements of authorship.”

So, as long as the author is using AI as a tool to help express the author’s intent, the resulting work (fixed in a tangible medium of expression) will be protected under Copyright law. For example, as a digital designer uses Photoshop to transform the colors and perspective of a photograph, or as a musician uses a synthesizer to create sounds and rhythms. But if, on the other hand, a “writer” prompts an LLM to “write a book about love gone wrong” and the LLM uses a chain of prompts to expand the prompt into an outline and then, into plot summaries, and then chapters, and finally a book, without human intervention, then no authorship exists.

The Death of the Author

Not to get too deep, but the advent of AI-aided or AI-directed writing makes startlingly relevant a question posed by Samuel Beckett that is no longer just theoretical or philosophical:

“What matter who’s speaking, someone said what matter who’s speaking.”8

Roland Barthes in his famous essay, “The Death of the Author,”9 took a stand against the notion of authority in a text. Published in 1967, it challenges the traditional approach of interpreting texts by seeking to understand the intentions and biography of the author. Barthes argues that the author’s identity, intentions, and historical context should not constrain the interpretation of a text. Instead, he posits that once a text is created, the author’s authority over its meaning is relinquished, and the focus of interpretation should shift to the reader and the text itself.

This Post-structuralist perspective was articulated by Michel Foucault, who wrote:

“We can easily imagine a culture where discourse would circulate without any need for an author. Discourses, whatever their status, form, or value, and regardless of our manner of handling them, would unfold in a pervasive anonymity. No longer the tiresome repetitions:

‘Who is the real author?’

‘Have we proof of his authenticity and originality?’

‘What has he revealed of his most profound self in his language?’

New questions will be heard:

‘What are the modes of existence of this discourse?’

‘Where does it come from; how is it circulated; who controls it?’

‘What placements are determined for possible subjects?’

‘Who can fulfill these diverse functions of the subject?’

Behind all these questions we would hear little more than the murmur of indifference:

‘What matter who’s speaking?’“10

If the interpretation of a text lies in the eyes of the reader and a text can be created without a human author (as is now easily achievable with the aid of ever multiplying AI tools), then where does that leave the concept of an author?

What Does It Mean to be an Author?

What then does it mean now to be an author when human-written and AI-written text is indistinguishable?11 Not from a legal standpoint, but from an everyday, functional point of view. When you can write a book by prompting an AI, you have two choices: (1) to reject AI-generated work as illegitimate, or, (2) to rethink what it means to be an author. Let’s consider the latter.

Heretofore writers were the authors of all of the words they committed to paper. Writers thought of the words, wrote or typed them up, rewrote them, and ultimately created a collection of words themselves that resulted in a work that was theirs.

Now, as AI becomes more integrated into content creation, and it becomes impossible to tell human from machine contributions, the role of human authors is transitioning from being authors of words to authors of intent. Like the Captain of a ship, who is responsible for navigating the salty sea and coordinating the actions of the crew, a writer will use AI tools to aim for the intent they wish to convey to the reader. Whether those words are created by the human author or AI is unimportant. What remains essential is that meaning is conveyed through this collaborative effort and that the writer directed it.

Closing Thoughts

It’s clear that our understanding of what it means to be an author is undergoing a fundamental transformation. As AI tools become more sophisticated and ingrained in the creative process, the role of the human author evolves from a solitary creator of words to a curator of ideas and a director of intent. This shift challenges us to reconsider our preconceptions about creativity, originality, and the essence of human contribution to the arts and letters.

The real value of a text, whether shaped by human hands or generated by algorithms, lies not in its origin but in its ability to communicate, to move, and to provoke thought. As authors of intent, writers are called to harness the power of AI not as a replacement for human creativity but as an amplifier of it, blending their unique perspectives and insights with the capabilities of these tools to explore new realms of expression and connection.

This evolution does not diminish the role of the author but rather expands it, inviting us to embrace the complexities of a world where the boundaries between human and machine creativity become increasingly blurred. In doing so, we must also engage with ethical considerations, ensuring that the use of AI in content creation enhances cultural discourse rather than diluting it with noise.

Ultimately, the journey forward for authors in the age of AI is one of adaptation and exploration, of finding new ways to imbue the cold logic of algorithms with the warmth and depth of human experience. In this new era, the essence of authorship lies not in the sole act of writing but in the deliberate shaping of meaning, the thoughtful guidance of narrative, and the ethical stewardship of the tools at our disposal. As we navigate these uncharted waters, let us remain committed to the core of what it means to be an author: to illuminate, to challenge, and to connect, bridging the gap between the human heart and the infinite possibilities of the digital age.


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1

Over 500 journalists were laid off in January 2024 alone, Politico, February 1, 2024, https://www.politico.com/news/2024/02/01/journalism-layoffs-00138517

2

Media Companies Have Slashed Over 20,000 Jobs In 2023, Forbes, December 19, 2023, https://www.forbes.com/sites/bradadgate/2023/12/19/media-companies-have-slashed-over-20000-jobs-in-2023

3

Scammy AI-Generated Book Rewrites Are Flooding Amazon, Wired, January 10, 2024, https://www.wired.com/story/scammy-ai-generated-books-flooding-amazon/

4

Amazon restricts authors from self-publishing more than three books a day after AI concerns, The Guardian, September 20, 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2023/sep/20/amazon-restricts-authors-from-self-publishing-more-than-three-books-a-day-after-ai-concerns

5

Focus: ChatGPT launches boom in AI-written e-books on Amazon, Reuters, February 21, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/technology/chatgpt-launches-boom-ai-written-e-books-amazon-2023-02-21/

6

Copyright Registration Guidance: Works Containing Material Generated by Artificial Intelligence, Federal Register, March 16, 2023, https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2023/03/16/2023-05321/copyright-registration-guidance-works-containing-material-generated-by-artificial-intelligence

7

Id.

8

Samuel Beckett, Stories and Texts for Nothing (New York: Grove Press, 1967), Text 3, pg. 85.

9

Roland Barthes, Image, music, text (London: Fontana, 1967), pgs. 142-148. [“We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none’ of them original, blend and clash.”]

10

Michel Foucault, What is an Author? Bulletin de la Société française de Philosophie 63, No. 3 (1969) 73-104

11

Professors Cautious of Tools to Detect AI-Generated Writing, Inside Higher Ed, February 9, 2024, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/tech-innovation/artificial-intelligence/2024/02/09/professors-proceed-caution-using-ai