News Publisher Accuses Microsoft, OpenAI of Copyright 'Exploitation'

Microsoft and OpenAI have been sued by the nonprofit publisher of Mother Jones, the latest volley in the ongoing fight between generative AI firms and the news industry.

In a lawsuit filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) accused generative AI giant OpenAI and its primary business partner, Microsoft, of infringing on CIR copyrights by using its content without permission or compensation.

OpenAI's business model is "built on the exploitation of copyrighted works," CIR alleged, arguing that AI-generated article summaries pose a threat to publishers.

"It's immensely dangerous," said CIR chief Monika Bauerlein in a statement to The Associated Press. "Our existence relies on users finding our work valuable and deciding to support it."

Bauerlein emphasized the importance of the relationship between readers and CIR's work. "When people can no longer develop that relationship with our work, when they no longer encounter Mother Jones or Reveal, then their relationship is with the AI tool," she said.

This shift, Bauerlein warned, could undermine the very foundation of CIR and other independent newsrooms.

OpenAI and Microsoft did not immediately respond to e-mailed requests for comment on Thursday.

CIR's lawsuit adds to the growing number of copyright cases OpenAI and Microsoft are facing in Manhattan's federal court. These include lawsuits from The New York Times, other media outlets, and bestselling authors such as John Grisham, Jodi Picoult and George R.R. Martin.

Additionally, a separate case has been brought against the companies in San Francisco's federal court by authors including comedian Sarah Silverman.

Some news organizations have opted to collaborate with OpenAI by signing compensation agreements for sharing news content used to train OpenAI's models. The latest to do so is Time, which announced Thursday that OpenAI would gain access to its archives spanning more than a century.

"Throughout our 101-year history, Time has embraced innovation to ensure that the delivery of our trusted journalism evolves alongside technology," said Time COO Mark Howard in a statement. "This partnership with OpenAI advances our mission to expand access to trusted information globally as we continue to embrace innovative new ways of bringing Time's journalism to audiences globally."

While OpenAI and other major AI developers often do not disclose their data sources, they argue that using large amounts of publicly accessible online text, images and other media to train AI systems falls under the "fair use" doctrine of American copyright law.

CIR's lawsuit, however, states that a dataset acknowledged by OpenAI to have been used for building an earlier version of its chatbot technology contained thousands of links to Mother Jones's Web site. Notably, the text used for AI training often lacked information about the story's author, title or copyright notice.

Last summer, more than 4,000 writers signed a letter to the CEOs of OpenAI and other tech companies, accusing them of exploitative practices in building chatbots.

"It's not a free resource for these AI companies to ingest and make money on," Bauerlein said, referring to news media content. "They pay for office space, they pay for electricity, they pay salaries for their workers. Why would the content that they ingest be the only thing that they don't pay for?"

Over the past year, several news organizations, including The Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, New York Post publisher News Corp., The Atlantic, Axel Springer in Germany, Prisa Media in Spain, France's Le Mondeand the Financial Times in London, have entered licensing agreements with OpenAI.

Founded in the 1970s, Mother Jones and CIR merged earlier this year, both operating from San Francisco, the same city where OpenAI is based.

The CIR lawsuit, which also covers its Reveal podcast and radio show, details the high costs of producing investigative journalism and warns that losing control of copyrighted content will lead to reduced revenue and fewer reporters, exacerbating the challenges in today's already strained media landscape.

"With fewer investigative news stories told, the cost to democracy will be enormous," the lawsuit states.

About the Author

John K. Waters is the editor in chief of a number of sites, with a focus on high-end development, AI and future tech. He's been writing about cutting-edge technologies and culture of Silicon Valley for more than two decades, and he's written more than a dozen books. He also co-scripted the documentary film Silicon Valley: A 100 Year Renaissance, which aired on PBS.  He can be reached at [email protected].