Shutterstock, one of the internet’s biggest sources of stock photos and illustrations, is now offering its customers the option to generate their own AI images. In October, the company announced a partnership with OpenAI, the creator of the wildly popular and controversial DALL-E AI tool. Now, the results of that deal are in beta testing and available to all paying Shutterstock users.
The new platform is available in “every language the site offers,” and comes included with customers’ existing licensing packages, according to a press statement from the company. And, according to Gizmodo’s own test, every text prompt you feed Shutterstock’s machine results in four images, ostensibly tailored to your request. At the bottom of the page, the site also suggests “More AI-generated images from the Shutterstock library,” which offer unrelated glimpses into the void.
But, be warned before you jump on the chance to replace all your standard stock image favs with AI constructs: The idea of using artificial intelligence to pump out “art” is an increasingly divisive one. Generative AI is a landscape fraught with potential legal and ethical complications.
Why all the worry?
All AI is trained on datasets, i.e. massive aggregations of material that teach it what to aim for. And for AI image generators, those training sets contain images made by humans—often human artists for whom their work is their livelihood.
Multiple recent lawsuits have been levied against the AI art generator, Stable Diffusion, and others for copyright infringement. And there’s not yet a clear legal precedent for how these cases will be handled.
One of Shutterstock’s main competitors, Getty Images, has said it wouldn’t be wading into the murky waters of AI anytime soon. The site banned AI-generated images on its platform. And, with regards to the technology, Getty’s CEO, Craig Peters said, “I think that’s dangerous. I don’t think it’s responsible. I think it could be illegal,” in an interview with The Verge.
It’s obvious that AI must be pulling its “inspiration” from the work of real, live people. But it’s difficult to pin down exactly when and where AI generators steal from visual artists. Interpreting artistic style can seem subjective. On the other hand, AI’s acts of plagiarism are much more apparent—though no more egregious—in AI-produced text. Clearly, if not approached carefully, artificial intelligence could pave the way for a theft crisis in creative fields.
How is Shutterstock trying to get around the issue?
In an attempt to pre-empt concerns about copyright law and artistic ethics, Shutterstock has said it uses “datasets licensed from Shutterstock” to train its DALL-E and LG EXAONE-powered AI. The company also claims it will pay artists whose work is used in its AI-generation. Shutterstock plans to do so through a “Contributor Fund.”
That fund “will directly compensate Shutterstock contributors if their IP was used in the development of AI-generative models, like the OpenAI model, through licensing of data from Shutterstock’s library,” the company explains in an FAQ section on its website. “Shutterstock will continue to compensate contributors for the future licensing of AI-generated content through the Shutterstock AI content generation tool,” it further says.
The first pay-out to contributing creators was scheduled to be distributed in December, at the end of the company’s last fiscal quarter of 2022. It’s unclear how many contributors were paid last month, and how much was distributed, if any. Gizmodo reached out to Shutterstock with questions about this process, but did not immediately receive a response.
Further, Shutterstock includes a clever caveat in their use guidelines for AI images. “You must not use the generated image to infringe, misappropriate, or violate the intellectual property or other rights of any third party, to generate spam, false, misleading, deceptive, harmful, or violent imagery,” the company notes. And, though I am not a legal expert, it would seem this clause puts the onus on the customer to avoid ending up in trouble. If a generated image includes a recognizable bit of trademarked material, or spits out celebrity’s likeness—it’s on the user of Shutterstock’s tool to notice and avoid republishing the problem content.
But does it work?
As far as effectiveness goes, it took Gizmodo five different prompts similar to “robot drawing a picture of a robot” before the AI actually spit out something close enough to that concept. Again, each results page provides four AI-generated options. Of the twenty total images the machine generated, only the one included at the top of this post clearly showed some representation of a robot holding a drawing/painting. The others were… a mixed bag.
For now, and for the foreseeable future, I think I’ll be sticking to Shutterstock’s more standard offerings.