Much of the fun of internet drama comes from its frivolousness, but sometimes an online shitfest points to something bigger. Last week, the AI-powered furry art site thisfursonadoesnotexist did just that, igniting a fandom firestorm while also highlighting an important debate about digital art. Trained on more than 55,000 images pulled (without permission) from a furry art forum, the algorithm was a simple case of art theft to some. For others, it was a chance to break out the popcorn. But legal scholars who spoke with Gizmodo said the conflict raises thorny questions about ownership in the age of AI—questions that may ultimately have to be answered in court.
Arfa, the programmer behind thisfursonadoesnotexist, says he used the same GAN (generative adversarial network) architecture behind the site thispersondoesnotexist to generate around 186,000 furry portraits. When he posted the project on Twitter last Wednesday, dozens of commenters rushed to weigh in. While many were fascinated by the project, some in the furry community objected to Arfa’s unauthorized use of art from the furry forum e621.net as training data. At least one person tried (and failed) to find proof that the algorithm was copying images from e621.net outright. And within days, the entire site was slapped with a DMCA copyright infringement complaint. (The company whose name the DMCA was issued in, according to Arfa, denied filing the notice and requested it be withdrawn.)
The creator of thisfursonadoesnotexist thinks it would’ve been impossible to contact all the artists involved. Arfa told Gizmodo that he scraped 200,000 images that were then narrowed down to a 55,000-image training set representing approximately 10,000 different artists—creators who may go by different names now or have left the fandom entirely. According to Arfa, he’s more than willing to take an image down from thisfursonadoesnotexist if it clearly copies an original character, but he says he has yet to see credible evidence of that.
In defense of the AI’s originality, the site has produced a collection of mushier fursonas whose delirious weirdness inspired a flurry of memes. “Some of these have designs that are so… specific? Holistic?” a commenter on Hacker News wrote, linking to a fursona with a tail sticking out of her head and an adorably half-formed feline mouse. Do these Cronenberg-esque misfit furries, with their wild-eyed gazes, scream “LOVE ME”or “SAVE ME”? The art world adores liminality—that’s value added right there.
Furry artists aren’t alone in facing the dilemma of digital manipulation. Just last month, Jay Z filed DMCA takedown notices against a YouTuber who used speech synthesis software to make his voice read the Book of Genesis and cover Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” While experts explained to Gizmodo that Jay Z’s issue isn’t copyright, since copyright doesn’t cover speech patterns, both incidents suggest a future where machine learning art is widespread, even commonplace. In such a future, can an artist’s original work be used as training material? If so, to what end? (In Jay Z’s case, YouTube ultimately allowed the videos to stand.)