Publishers Association Blasts the UK Government’s Response to AI Report

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

‘This report is a call to action for government’ on the UK market’s AI policy, says the Publishers Association’s  Dan Conway in London.

Image: Getty iStockphoto IR Stone

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Conway: ‘Support for Licensing and Transparency’
Some of our readers may recall that in early February, the United Kingdom’s Publishers Association warmly welcomed what’s generally called “the Lords report,” an assessment from the Communications and Digital Committee of the House of Lords’ select committee on generative artificial intelligence and large language models.

What the publishers were pleased to see in that report was that the committee had advised the government on threats to copyright protection now well-know and much discussed and debated in the creative industries. Several times citing the input of the association CEO Dan Conway and referring to the term copyright alone more than 60 times.

Indeed, in February, Conway and his team hailed the work of the House of Lords committee, which insisted that the government “cannot sit on its hands” as large language models (LLMs) made their all-too-familiar forays into the data sphere, indiscriminately gathering and processing copyrighted content to “train” themselves in linguistic logic.

Praising the report, Conway said:

“This report rightly recognizes that the benefits of AI do not warrant the violation of copyright law and its underlying principles. As the committee states, it’s not fair for tech firms to use rights holders’ content for huge financial gain without permission or compensation.

“The Publishers Association welcomes the prominent call for the government to take action to support rights holders. We gave evidence to the committee’s inquiry last year and it’s great to see their report backing many of our key arguments—that LLMs shouldn’t use copyright-protected works without permission or compensation, that there should be support for licensing, that there should be transparency, and that the government should legislate if necessary.

“Publishers have long embraced the benefits of AI in their work and share the committee’s ambition for a positive vision on AI, where the myriad opportunities are embraced but rightsholders and human creativity are respected, permissions are sought, and licensing is supported. This report is a call to action for government at a pivotal moment for the UK’s approach to AI.”

As it has turned out, however, Conway, on behalf of the British market’s publishers, other book-business elements, and brother creative industries, is blasting the government’s response—which perhaps has been driven in part by what seems a rather arbitrary pledge “to make the UK a science and technology superpower by 2030.”

Conway has now characterized the government response to the Lords report as “deeply disappointing.”

He writes:

“It is deeply disappointing to see another failure by government to act decisively on copyright infringement in AI development.

Dan Conway

“Despite strong calls from the Lords Communications Committee and good-faith engagement by the creative industries, we still do not see any tangible commitments to protect the creative industries against mass copyright infringement in this response.

“We echo the committee’s frustration that this urgent issue has not received the same political attention and heft as other areas of AI development.  It is vital for authors, publishers and the creative sector as a whole that government moves to protect creators’ and rights holders’ work and the value of human creativity now.

“Support for licensing and transparency—which the Publishers Association has advocated for—is welcome but must be accompanied by tangible policy commitments and a timeline for action.

“AI is developing at immense speed. The government must show leadership and act now, rather than waiting on the courts and foreign jurisdictions to dictate the fate of the UK’s world-leading creative industries.”

And the Baroness Stowell of Beeston MBE is also on record with a response, in her case on behalf of the Lords committee itself, which created the initial balanced and comprehensive report that the creative industries’ professionals had hoped would get the government on-track to what they see as the correct and fair way forward.

In her letter to the government, Baroness Stowell places the copyright issue conspicuously at the top of her response (the government had it at the bottom of its retort to the Lords report).

Stowell writes with terse, withering clarity:

“The government’s record on copyright is inadequate and deteriorating. We appreciate the technical and political complexities of the challenge. But we are not persuaded the government is investing enough creativity, resources and senior political heft to address the problem.

The Baroness Stowell of Beeston, MBE

“The contrast with other issues, notably AI safety, is stark. The government has allocated circa £400 million [US$499.9] to a new ‘AI Safety Institute’ with high-level attention from the prime minister.

“On copyright, the government has set up and subsequently disbanded a failed series of round tables led by the Intellectual Property Office. The commitment to ministerial engagement is helpful but the next steps have been left unclear. While well intentioned, this is simply not enough.

“Your response acknowledges the purpose of copyright but declines to provide a clear view on whether the government supports the principle of applying this to LLMs, and whether the government is prepared to update legislation to put the matter beyond legal doubt. Indeed, it suggested that the government does not wish to comment in order to avoid prejudicing the outcome of ongoing legal cases. This contention is misguided and unconvincing. We appreciate that it is not government’s role to interpret the law or to comment on legal cases. But there is no suggestion that setting out your intention to address legal uncertainty would breach sub judice conventions.

“It is therefore difficult to escape the conclusion that the government is avoiding taking sides on a contentious topic.

“This trajectory is concerning. The issues with copyright are manifesting right now and problematic business models are fast becoming entrenched and normalized. It is worth exploring whether these trends suggest a few larger publishers will obtain some licensing deals while a longer tail of smaller outlets lose out.”

In her response, which Publishing Perspectives understands is aligned with that of the Publishers Association, Stowell also points to a need for market competition to be made very much part of the policy for the best effects as well as prosperous experiences for “new entrants” in the field.

She writes, “There is a trend toward consolidation at the cutting edge of the market.

“Upholding open competition is vital to ensure new entrants can establish a foothold. We welcome your recognition of this issue and note your engagement with the open source community to ensure any policy interventions are ‘nuanced, targeted, and designed to avoid or minimize negative impacts on valuable open-source activity.’ We reiterate our suggestion that market competition is made an explicit policy objective: it should be embedded within the design and review process for new policies and standards, and subject to structured internal and external critique.”

More from Publishing Perspectives on artificial intelligence is here, more on the UK’s Publishers Association and its work is here, more on copyright is here, and more on the United Kingdom’s publishing market is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.