The Fanfic Sex Trope That Caught a Plundering AI Red-Handed


Sudowrite is intended to be used as a writer’s assistant; authors plug in sentences that are giving them trouble, or scenes they’re working on, and the AI offers up a few lines to help guide them on where they could go next. Prior to the Reddit post, Yu had no idea what the Omegaverse was. Now his own system was offering tips on how to write smut about it.

Writers of fanfiction, much like writers of journalism or television or movies, were not pleased to find out that their work was being used to train these systems. “This is particularly concerning as many for-profit AI writing programs like Sudowrite, WriteSonic, and others utilized GPT-3,” the original Reddit poster wrote in an email to the Archive of Our Own communications team, shared in the thread. “These AI apps take the works which we create for fun and fandom, not only to gain profit, but also to one day replace human writing.” 

Yu is aware of this complaint. “I’d love for there to be a simple way to do fair compensation for content that was used to train GPT-3, but unfortunately, there is no mechanism that OpenAI provides for that,” he says. “If someone (OpenAI? Google?) were to offer this, we’d try it out immediately.” For now, he believes that Sudowrite’s value to writers outweighs the harm. “We’re one of the few AI platforms that is catering specifically to fiction writers,” he says, adding that when there is a better model that has opt-in features, and potential payment for people’s work, “we will be in a good position to switch to it, and this is something we would promote heavily to our user base to bring awareness.”

But that’s not convincing to a lot of writers who feel their work is being used against their will to enrich technology companies. Compared to Google and OpenAI, Sudowrite is small potatoes, but they have still raised $3 million in seed funding.

As far as writers are concerned, it’s not enough for a place like Sudowrite to wait around for some other, bigger company to fix what they see as fundamental, unethical flaws in the system. In the comments on the Reddit post, one user said: “God I hate AI so much on so many different levels.” Others shared tips on how to make their fan works private. “I never liked the idea of hiding my work, but because of this I went and restricted everything I’ve written so only registered users can see it,” wrote another.

“It sort of takes the heart out of it,” says Kreuger. “Fanfiction is used by a lot of creators to explore difficult topics that are personal to them and their life experiences as a way to vent about these topics. Even if it’s just smut, just plain smut, there’s a human element there and it’s someone creating something for their enjoyment and they want to share that hard work with people. It’s stealing that from people.” 

This is the same argument being made by the WGA—that these systems can use copyrighted (or copyrightable) work against the authors’ will. This applies to fanfiction too. 

It might not be done for profit, but fanfiction is eligible for copyright claims. While the writers do not own the content on which they’re basing these pieces of fiction, they do own anything original they contribute through their work. 

“Even things that are highly derivative, if they originated with the author, are considered original,” says Betsy Rosenblatt, a professor at University of Tulsa College of Law and the legal chair for the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW), a nonprofit that oversees Archive of Our Own among other fanwork projects. That includes things like any original characters an author added, the plot structure, and the particular word choices. So it is possible in some situations to file for copyright protection for works of fanfiction—although most fanfiction writers don’t, whether it’s because they don’t know how, or don’t want to spend the money, or simply aren’t interested in jumping through the hoops. 

But for most writers I spoke with, it’s not really about copyright or ownership or even money. Most fanfiction authors don’t make a living doing this. They do it for the community, for the friends and connections they make. “I have so many friends that I’ve met through partaking in events where we create stuff together,” says Kreuger. And Rosenblatt says that people who are unhappy with scraping see this as a major problem. For them, it’s not that they are being deprived of potential income, but instead that someone is making money off of something that they created specifically to be non-commercial. 

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