Sony vs AI: round one – are you using our songs?

Beyonce performing
Beyonce is one of Sony Music's many huge stars (Image credit: Getty Images/ Kevin Mazur)

Sony Music has sent letters to over 700 tech firms, including Google, Microsoft and OpenAI, demanding to know if they have used its songs to develop AI systems.

In the letter, Sony stated that it has "reason to believe" that the addressees "may already have made unauthorised uses" of its music. They have asked for the details of songs they have trained AI systems on, and how those songs were accessed, as well as the number of copies of those songs, whether they still exist and how long they existed for.

It has given the firms a deadline to respond and says that it will enforce its copyright “to the full extent permitted by applicable law”.

Its complaint is that AI music systems are ‘trained’ by inputting thousands, often millions of songs; songs which it holds the copyright to. 

Tech firms like Google and Microsoft have launched AI tools but at present it is not known what data it has used to develop them and whether that use constitutes a copyright infringement.

However, Nana Nwachukwu, a lawyer at AI ethics firm Saidot, told the BBC News that whilst training AI models with copyrighted music "may constitute a copyright infringement" under current EU rules "exceptions exist" for businesses with "lawful access" to the music, so long as it is either in the public domain and not behind a paywall, or it has been licensed for AI training.

This will change under the EU’s forthcoming AI Act, which is set to tighten up on tech firms' AI models, requiring them to adhere to transparency and documentation guidelines.

Sony is not the first publisher to go down this route. Its rival Universal Music has brought an action against the AI firm Antrophic in the US, alleging it has infringed the copyright of hundreds of its songs in its AI tools.

It follows recent cases where individuals have sued AI firms for copyright infringement. Game Of Thrones author George RR Martin has accused OpenAI of “systemic theft on a mass scale” in his action against the makers of ChatGPT. Meanwhile, Scarlett Johansson has sued the same company for creating a ChatGPT voice similar to hers after she refused to collaborate with them.

A number of musicians have recently voice their concern about the use of AI in music. Nick Cave last year suggested that ChatGPT should “just fuck off and leave songwriting alone”. 

More recently Slash has criticised its use, saying “having AI reproduce anything or actually produce anything original in terms of music does not really thrill me.”

Will Simpson
News and features writer

Will Simpson is a freelance music expert whose work has appeared in Classic Rock, Classic Pop, Guitarist and Total Guitar magazine. He is the author of 'Freedom Through Football: Inside Britain's Most Intrepid Sports Club' and his second book 'An American Cricket Odyssey' is due out in 2025