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Humans win the first big AI labor dispute


The Writers Guild of America has won its monthslong dispute with the studios. While the most immediate effect of the strike’s end will be the return of late-night TV—and hooray for that—the new deal may ultimately be most remembered as a precedent-setter in the much wider, emerging confrontation between labor and management over the use of AI.

Here’s the gist of the new three-year “basic agreement” as it relates to (mainly generative) AI:

If studios use genAI to generate scripts, the results won’t qualify as “literary material,” which means fleshie writers won’t have to share writing credits with the AI. GenAI output also can’t qualify as “assigned” or “source” material like a novel or game might, so again, the person tasked with wrangling such output gets all the credit—and doesn’t have to settle for the lower pay associated with doing rewrites. Studios must make writers aware if they’re being given AI-generated text to incorporate. Writers can use AI if they want (and must first notify the studio if planning to do so), but the studios can’t force them to use it. And the Guild gets to reject the use of its members’ writings to train AI models.

Obviously, these terms are specific to their context, which includes the fact that the studios have multiple incentives to keep humans involved in the process—straight genAI output is not copyrightable, and the technology is still a way off being able to write acceptable screenplays on its own. Other unions may also lack the muscle (and solidarity, in this case from Hollywood actors) to win comparable concessions.

But the underlying principle is at least theoretically applicable in many other sectors: AI is a tool that can be incorporated into the workflow—with the consent of everyone involved—but it’s not for replacing nor undermining the human worker.

That seems to be a healthy balance. It certainly fits very nicely with the “copilot” narrative of AI that companies such as Microsoft are touting, and sticking to that storyline would give AI its best shot at societal acceptance. But let’s see how this plays out over time.

Separately-ish, the WGA victory will also change the streaming biz somewhat, not only because the WGA won a new bonus based on exceptionally high-performing new streaming series and films, but also because this will require the likes of Netflix and Amazon to be a heck of a lot more transparent (at least, with the Guild) about the performance of high-budget, in-house productions. The Verge has a good piece on that.

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David Meyer

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