Major record labels sue AI start-ups

Sony, Universal and Warner Records bring action against two AI song generators over alleged copyright infringement

Three major record labels claim AI music companies copied decades worth of music without permission Shutterstock

The first significant music industry AI lawsuits were filed on Monday in the US by major labels including Sony Music, Universal Music Group (UMG) and Warner Records.

They are suing AI song generators Suno and Udio for copyright infringement. The case against Suno was filed in a Massachusetts district court and the case against Udio was filed in the Southern District of New York; the claims cover recordings by artists of multiple genres, styles and eras.

Suno and Udio allow users to generate digital music files that sound like genuine human sound recordings in response to basic inputs. The lawsuits note that capacity for a generative AI service to produce convincing imitations of genuine sound recordings starts with “copying a vast range of sound recordings”, to “train” a software “model” to generate outputs.

The plaintiffs claim that this process involved copying “decades worth of the world’s most popular sound recordings” and then ingesting those copies into AI models so it can generate outputs that “imitate the qualities of genuine human sound recordings”.

The music labels say that the foundation of these AI businesses “has been to exploit copyrighted sound recordings without permission”.

The AI start-ups argue that their copying of sound recordings is “fair use”. This is a US defence to copyright infringement which is far more flexible than in other jurisdictions such as the UK and includes considerations such as whether the use was “transformative”.

Suno and Udio also charge many of their users monthly fees to use their product and produce digital music files, which are designed to “entertain, evoke emotion and stoke passion just like the genuine sound recordings” both start-up services copied, say plaintiffs. 

In the court filings they go on to argue that Suno and Udio’s use of their copyrighted sound recordings is “quintessentially commercial and creates directly competitive digital music files that serve the same purpose as the recorded music plaintiffs create and substitute for genuine recordings by humans”.

The plaintiffs accuse both companies of being “deliberately evasive” about what they copied, effectively “conceding in pre-litigation correspondence that they copied plaintiffs’ copyrighted sound recordings”.

In their evidence the labels say that Suno’s service has generated 29 different outputs that contain the style of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” (the copyright in which is owned by UMG).

The lawsuit against Udio details a digital music file with “striking resemblance” to US rock band Green Day’s hit American Idiot (the copyright in which is owned by Warner Records). Using the prompt “pop punk american alternative rock California 2004 rob Cavallo” and portions of Green Day lyrics, Udio generated Subliminal Hysteria, a file that shares many similarities with the Green Day original, says the lawsuit.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) supports the litigation. Chairman and CEO Mitch Glazier said: “The music community has embraced AI and we are already partnering and collaborating with responsible developers to build sustainable AI tools centered on human creativity that put artists and songwriters in charge.

“But we can only succeed if developers are willing to work together with us. Unlicensed services like Suno and Udio that claim it’s ‘fair’ to copy an artist’s life’s work and exploit it for their own profit without consent or pay set back the promise of genuinely innovative AI for us all.”

Jonathan Coote, an associate at London-based Bray & Krais, which specilaises in creative industries’ legal work, said the labels had presented “compelling evidence” showing the similarity between outputs and original works, including digital watermarks such as artist Jason Derulo’s infamous vocal trademark.

Whether it is fair use could potentially become a “philosophical question about the creative role of AI encompassing its economic and social impact”. He added: “The cases will likely be one of a number across the creative industries that are eventually decided by a Supreme Court decision.”

Paddy Gardiner, head of the disputes group at London media and entertainment law firm Simkins, agreed that the key battleground will be “the extent to which AI services can legitimately rely on fair use principles as a defence. If they fail, the damages payable under US law are likely to threaten their future existence – and embolden the labels to pursue other AI services.”

Ilia Kolochenko, partner and cybersecurity practice lead with New York cyber law practice Platt Law noted that “suing start-ups can be a good idea for IP rights owners to make some money: most small infringers will probably offer all of their available cash to quickly settle the case outside the court, so it will be a forest of low-hanging fruits”.

Coote added: ”Whilst many have been expecting this for some time, it will have an immediate impact, as investors in AI music tools will be even more concerned with ensuring that any training has been conducted legally.”

Email your news and story ideas to: [email protected]