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Picture: 123RF/lightwise
Picture: 123RF/lightwise

Imagine it is 2034 and half the songs you hear on the radio are AI generated based on what is most popular with listeners. Lyrics and beats are generated through ChatGPT, which has been integrated into radio and WhatsApp.

As a listener all you have to do is name an artist for the style and voice you like, suggest the theme for the lyrics and describe the mood you’re in. Within seconds the AI technology has produced and broadcast an “original song” that has circumvented copyright laws. As futuristic as it may sound, this scenario or one much like it is not only plausible but could soon be our reality. 

The department of communications and digital technologies, in partnership with Microsoft, recently hosted the inaugural National AI Summit. What stood out for me was the fact that it was the world’s leading corporation on AI that controlled the narrative.

There were only a handful of SA companies at the summit, so we listened to speaker after speaker from Microsoft eloquently persuading delegates and government on the direction SA should take in formulating AI policy. 

Microsoft is the second most valuable company in the world, with a market capitalisation that has risen to more than $3-trillion in part because of its prominent role in the development of AI technology. Microsoft invested $13bn in OpenAI, producer of generative AI chatbot ChatGPT.

ChatGPT is as mainstream as it can get for AI, its mobile application having achieved over 110-million downloads across iOS and Android platforms in a matter of months. 

The SA AI summit reminded me of 2016, when another of the giants of Silicon Valley hosted similar public engagements in partnership with the department of trade, industry and competition to convince us to adopt “fair use” as a doctrine when amending the Copyright Act of 1978. That did not go well for SA copyright holders. 

Such machination by Big Tech is not unique to SA. A recent article in the New York Times, headlined “How Tech Giants Cut Corners to Harvest Data for AI”, speaks for itself. The EU parliament has adopted an AI Act in an attempt to regulate the use of data for AI, and a US congressman from California has just introduced a bill that obliges AI companies to transparently state what copyright works they are using to train their neural networks and algorithms. In Germany, TikTok was taken to court over unlicensed use of music under EU legislation intended to close the so-called value gap.

In SA, a bill amending the Copyright Act is sitting on the desk of President Cyril Ramaphosa awaiting his assent. Only his conscience, based on numerous representations to him — including ours — might deter the president from signing this bill into law and plunging a whole industry into potential financial ruin. The creative industry in SA already contributes only a fraction of the R74.3bn it used to provide to the fiscus. This is an industry that in 2023 was hailed as among the fastest growing in SA after agriculture and mining. 

Jobs threat

If SA is blind to this issue, the “Uberisation” of culture looms in this country, threatening yet more jobs, wages and social security — the very fabric of a stable society. AI is a rapidly emerging technology, so we cannot be caught napping. We need to pay attention to how the government intends to regulate this technology.

Tech entrepreneur Elon Musk recently predicted that AI “will probably be smarter than any single human next year”. As we consider our play in this space, are we even trying to be Afrocentric in our thinking, and our approach to lawmaking? Or will we just blindly adhere to what the multinationals dictate to us?

In addition to the general ethical risk posed by AI, copyright theft warrants that we should all be active citizens. AI companies are already facing legal actions from various copyright-holders. In 2023, the Authors Guild filed a class-action suit against OpenAI on behalf of a class of fiction writers whose works have been used to train GPT, accused Open AI of “systemic theft on a mass scale”. The recent groundbreaking Hollywood strike was in part of result of unregulated AI adoption. 

The SA creative sector is under siege. The battles we are waging in 2024 to stop the Copyright Amendment Bill from adoption in its current form are but the beginning of many other fights coming our way. SA’s creative sectors will need to enter the ring and be prepared to fight if they want to avoid having to dance to foreign players’ tune. 

• Makgamathe chairs the Copyright Coalition of SA.

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