Music Industry Sues AI Startups Sony, UMG, and Warner Music sue Suno and Udio over alleged copyright violations

Published
Jul 3, 2024
Reading time
3 min read
Music Industry Sues AI Startups: Sony, UMG, and Warner Music sue Suno and Udio over alleged copyright violations

A smoldering conflict between the music industry and AI companies exploded when major recording companies sued up-and-coming AI music makers. 

What’s new: Sony Music, Universal Music Group (UMG), and Warner Music — the world’s three largest music companies — and a trade organization, Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), sued Suno and Udio, which offer web-based music generators, for alleged copyright violations.

How it works: The music powers filed separate lawsuits against Suno and Udio in U.S. federal courts. The plaintiffs allege that the startups used copyrighted songs owned by RIAA members as training data, in the process making unauthorized copies without receiving permission or compensating the owners. They seek damages of at least $150,000 per song and cessation of further AI training on their catalogs.

  • The recording companies argue that training AI models on songs involves making a number of unauthorized copies of the original music, first by scraping the audio files, then cleaning, converting file formats, dividing songs into subunits, and fine-tuning.
  • To show that the startups had trained their models on copyrighted music, the recording companies presented examples (most of which are no longer available) in which they prompted a model to generate a copyrighted work. For instance, given the prompt, “m a r i a h c a r e y, contemporary r&b, holiday, Grammy Award-winning American singer-songwriter, remarkable vocal range,” Udio allegedly generated a facsimile of “All I Want for Christmas is You” by Mariah Carey. Other prompts that caused a model to generate an existing song included the song’s lyrics but not the artist’s name.
  • The lawsuits claim that generated music directly competes with original music because Suno and Udio charge for their services and generated music can be used in lieu of copyrighted music. Furthermore, they claim the models’ outputs are not sufficiently transformative of copyrighted works for the copying to be considered fair use. 
  • Udio did not address the specific allegations. In a blog post, it compared its models to music students learning and taking inspiration from accomplished musicians. Suno’s CEO told Billboard, a music-industry trade magazine, that the company’s technology is transformative rather than copying.

Behind the news: Although major music companies have a history of taking action against AI companies, music streamers, and musicians who distributed generated likenesses of music they owned, they’re also working with AI startups on their own terms. For instance, UMG is collaborating with voice-cloning startup Soundlabs to create authorized synthetic voices of UMG artists. UMG, Sony, and Warner are also negotiating with YouTube to license music for a song generator to be launched this year.

Why it matters: As in similar lawsuits that involve text generators, the outcome of these actions could have an important impact on AI developers and users alike. Copyright law in the United States (and many other countries) does not address whether training AI models on copyrighted materials is a use that requires permission from copyright owners. In lieu of further legislation that answers the question, courts will decide. Assuming these cases go to trial, a verdict in favor of Suno or Udio would set a precedent that copyright doesn’t necessarily protect copyrighted works from AI training. Conversely, a verdict in favor of the music industry could restrict the use of copyrighted works in training, impeding a range of AI technologies that historically have been trained on data from the open internet. 

We’re thinking: Copyright aims to prohibit unauthorized copying of intellectual property, but routine copying of data is built into the infrastructure of digital communications, never mind training AI systems. A web browser makes a temporary copy of every web page it displays, and web search engines typically copy the page they’ve indexed. It’s high time to revise copyright law for the AI era in ways that create the most value for the most people.

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