Why the Great AI Backlash Came for a Tiny Startup You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Many of the authors who chastised Smith, like Kunzru, disapprove primarily of this pirated database. Or, more specifically, they hate the idea of trying to make money off work derived from a pirated library as opposed to simply conducting research. “I’m not against all data scraping,” Devin Madson says. “I know a lot of academics in digital humanities, and they do scrape a lot of data.” Madson was one of the first people to contact Smith to complain about Prosecraft last week. What rubbed her the wrong way was the attempt to profit from the analytical tools developed with scraped data. (Madson also more broadly disapproves of AI writing tools, including Grammarly, for, as she sees it, encouraging the homogenization of literary style.)

Not every author opposed Prosecraft, despite how it appeared on social media. MJ Javani was delighted when he saw that Prosecraft had a page about his first novel. “As a matter of fact, I dare say, I may have paid for this analysis if it had not been provided for free by Prosecraft,” he says. He does not agree with the decision to take the site down. “I think it was a great idea,” Daniela Zamudio, a writer who submitted her work, says.

Even supporters have caveats about that pirated library, though. Zamudio, for instance, understands why people are upset about the piracy but hopes the site will come back using a submissions-based database.

The moral case against Prosecraft is clear-cut: The books were pirated. Authors who oppose book pirating have a straightforward argument against Smith’s project.

But did Smith deserve all that blowback? “I think he needed to be called out,” Kunzru says. “He maybe didn’t fully understand the sensitivity right now, you know, in the context of the WGA strike and the focus on large language models and various other forms of machine learning.”

Others aren’t so sure. Publishing industry analyst Thad McIlroy doesn’t approve of data scraping, either. “Pirate libraries are not a good thing,” he says. But he sees the backlash against Prosecraft as majorly misguided. His term? “Shrieking hysteria.”

And some copyright experts have watched the furor with their jaws near the ground. While the argument against piracy is simple to follow, they are skeptical that Prosecraft could’ve been taken to court successfully.

Matthew Sag, a law professor at Emory University, thinks Smith could’ve mounted a successful defense of his project by invoking fair use, a doctrine allowing use of copyrighted materials without permission under certain circumstances, like parody or writing a book review. Fair use is a common defense against claims of copyright infringement within the US, and it’s been embraced by tech companies. It’s a “murky and ill-defined” area of the law, says intellectual property lawyer Bhamati Viswanathan, who wrote a book on copyright and creative arts. Which makes questions of what does or does not constitute fair use equally murky and ill-defined, even if it’s derived from pirated sources.

Sag, along with several other experts I spoke with, pointed to the Google Books and HathiTrust cases as precedent—two examples of the courts ruling in favor of projects that uploaded snippets of books online without obtaining the copyright holders’ permission, determining that they constituted fair use. “I think that the reasons that people are upset really don’t have anything to do with this poor guy,” says Sag. “I think it has to do with everything else that’s going on.”

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