AI in Hollywood, a Cause to Strike Against

Cover Image: Famous father and son duo Robert and Chris Pine on the picket line at Disney on 9/18, courtesy of WGA

After a prolonged five-month stalemate, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) has successfully negotiated a deal with Hollywood studios, bringing an end to the writers’ standoff. Beginning this Wednesday, screenwriters can get back to work, while adhering to the stipulations of their newly minted contract. Though writer’s strikes are nothing new for Hollywood, or the entertainment sector, this one was different. The strike’s backdrop significantly featured tensions over the role of AI in the industry. While generative AI tools, such as ChatGPT, currently possess limited creative capabilities, this did not soothe the considerable (and understandable) anxiety that was felt among writers. Comedy writer Adam Conover expressed his concerns to TechCrunch, stating, “I’m not perturbed by the tech per se. My apprehension stems from corporations harnessing a still-evolving technology to deteriorate our work environment.” WGA writers’ primary worries surrounded the risk of studios potentially harnessing rapidly evolving AI tools as a means to bypass compensating union-affiliated members. So, how did we arrive at a resolution? Let’s dive in.

Battlestar Galactica picket at NBCU on 9/21. Photo: J.W. Hendricks, published by WGA

Firstly, we must note that the strike was about more than just AI; it also demanded better work and pay conditions for writers. In contrast to previously accepted norms, the WGA’s fresh agreement encompasses enhanced residual payments, guarantees minimum staffing in writers’ rooms, and sets other conditions beneficial to screenwriters. Circling back to AI, the contract spells out the boundaries of AI usage in the realm of writing. This is especially crucial as we consider the risks and implications of AI use across all industries. It is remarkable to note that while many legislative bodies are struggling to act, this resolution presents a conclusive alternative. Under the new rules, AI cannot be employed to author or modify scripts. Furthermore, content produced by AI cannot be deemed as foundational, safeguarding writers from missing out on credits due to AI’s involvement.

While writers retain the liberty to use AI tools at their discretion, studios cannot impose the use of specific AI tools during a project. Further, if AI-created materials are supplied to writers, studios are obligated to disclose this information. The WGA’s contract summary clearly states, “The WGA retains the authority to contend that utilizing writers’ content to educate AI breaches [the contract] or other legal statutes.” While legal dynamics surrounding expansive language models and copyrighted content remain ambiguous, the WGA’s negotiation underscores a definitive stance: union members do not approve of their content being harnessed to educate studio-specific AI algorithms.

Image courtesy of SAG-AFTRA, sourced digitally

Though this is all seemingly good news, it isn’t quite time to shut the book on Hollywood’s current strike. Separate from WGA, the actors’ union, SAG-AFTRA, is still embroiled in a strike. This follows a significant majority (98.32%) of its members having recently voted in favor of striking against the gaming industry. Representing stunt coordinators, motion capture artists, and video game voice actors, SAG-AFTRA has voiced apprehensions about AI’s potential to diminish the creative contributions of union members. SAG-AFTRA National Executive Director Duncan Crabtree-Ireland released a pointed statement addressed to the video game industry, sharing that “After five rounds of bargaining, it has become abundantly clear that the video game companies aren’t willing to meaningfully engage on the critical issues: compensation undercut by inflation, unregulated use of AI and safety.”  A further statement on the SAG-AFTRA website also highlights concerns, noting that “numerous performers might find their debut role to be their swan song, as firms are increasingly keen to digitize our members or acquaint AI with their distinctive voices right from their inaugural assignment.” The outcome of the SAG-AFTRA contract remains uncertain. However, the WGA’s recent pact potentially paves the way for defining boundaries concerning AI’s role in the realm of creative arts.

The recent agreement between the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and Hollywood studios serves as a pivotal moment in the evolving relationship between technology and the creative arts. This landmark deal not only brings an end to a significant standoff but also charts a potential course for other industries facing the challenges of AI integration. Around the world, there are many examples of society pushing back against generative AI, and advocating for the human creative process. From the U.S. Senate Committee’s ongoing inquiry into AI and copyright law (check out our recent piece detailing the current state of these discussions), to the European Union’s frequent calls for sweeping reform in the generative AI sector, and beyond, we are only at the beginning of a journey to establishing fair frameworks for human/AI collaboration. The WGA’s negotiations have successfully defined the boundaries of AI in scriptwriting, ensuring that human writers remain at the forefront of the industry, but there is still a longer road ahead. This outcome underscores a broader sentiment: while technology is advancing, the intrinsic value and rights of human contributors should never be overshadowed. The ongoing concerns voiced by other groups, such as the actors’ union, further highlight the urgency of these discussions. The WGA’s steps may very well offer a blueprint for these industries, suggesting that with thoughtful negotiation, it’s possible to embrace the future without compromising the importance of human talent. As the entertainment sector continues its dance with technology, it’s imperative to ensure that human creativity remains at its heart.

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