Experts debate whether GitHub’s latest AI tool violates copyright law

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GitHub’s impressive new code-assisting AI tool called Copilot is receiving both praise and criticism.

Copilot draws context from the code that a developer is working on and can suggest entire lines or functions. The system, from OpenAI, claims to be “significantly more capable than GPT-3” in generating code and can help even veteran programmers to discover new APIs or ways to solve problems.

Critics claim the system is using copyrighted code that GitHub then plans to charge for:

Julia Reda, a researcher and former MEP, published a blog post arguing that “GitHub Copilot is not infringing your copyright”.

GitHub – and therefore its owner, Microsoft – is using the huge number of repositories it hosts with ‘copyleft’ licenses for its tool. Copyleft allows open-source software or documentation to be modified and distributed back to the community.

Reda argues in her post that clamping down on tools such as GitHub’s through tighter copyright laws would harm copyleft and the benefits it offers.

One commenter isn’t entirely convinced:

“Lots of people have demonstrated that it pretty much regurgitates code verbatim from codebases with abandon. Putting GPL code inside a neural network does not remove the license if the output is the same as the input.

A large portion of what Copilot outputs is already full of copyright/license violations, even without extensions.”

Because the code is machine-generated, Reda also claims that it cannot be determined to be ‘derivative work’ that would face the wrath of intellectual property laws.

“Copyright law has only ever applied to intellectual creations – where there is no creator, there is no work,” says Reda. “This means that machine-generated code like that of GitHub Copilot is not a work under copyright law at all, so it is not a derivative work either.”

There is, of course, also a debate over whether the increasing amounts of machine-generated work should be covered under IP laws. We’ll let you decide your own position on the matter.

(Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash)

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