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Two 80-something journalists tried ChatGPT. Then, they sued to protect the 'written word'

GRAFTON, Mass. — (AP) — When two octogenarian buddies named Nick discovered that ChatGPT might be stealing and repurposing a lifetime of their work, they tapped a son-in-law to sue the companies behind the artificial intelligence chatbot.

Veteran journalists Nicholas Gage, 84, and Nicholas Basbanes, 81, who live near each other in the same Massachusetts town, each devoted decades to reporting, writing and book authorship.

Gage poured his tragic family story and search for the truth about his mother's death into a bestselling memoir that led John Malkovich to play him in the 1985 film “Eleni.” Basbanes transitioned his skills as a daily newspaper reporter into writing widely-read books about literary culture.

Basbanes was the first of the duo to try fiddling with AI chatbots, finding them impressive but prone to falsehoods and lack of attribution. The friends commiserated and filed their lawsuit earlier this year, seeking to represent a class of writers whose copyrighted work they allege “has been systematically pilfered by” OpenAI and its business partner Microsoft.

“It's highway robbery,” Gage said in an interview in his office next to the 18th-century farmhouse where he lives in central Massachusetts.

“It is,” added Basbanes, as the two men perused Gage's book-filled shelves. “We worked too hard on these tomes.”

Now their lawsuit is subsumed into a broader case seeking class-action status led by household names like John Grisham, Jodi Picoult and "Game of Thrones" novelist George R. R. Martin; and proceeding under the same New York federal judge who's hearing similar copyright claims from media outlets such as The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Mother Jones.

What links all the cases is the claim that OpenAI — with help from Microsoft's money and computing power — ingested huge troves of human writings to “train” AI chatbots to produce human-like passages of text, without getting permission or compensating the people who wrote the original works.

“If they can get it for nothing, why pay for it?” Gage said. “But it’s grossly unfair and very harmful to the written word.”

OpenAI and Microsoft didn't return requests for comment this week but have been fighting the allegations in court and in public. So have other AI companies confronting legal challenges not just from writers but visual artists, music labels and other creators who allege that generative AI profits have been built on misappropriation.

The chief executive of Microsoft's AI division, Mustafa Suleyman, defended AI industry practices at last month's Aspen Ideas Festival, voicing the theory that training AI systems on content that's already on the open internet is protected by the "fair use" doctrine of U.S. copyright laws.

“The social contract of that content since the ’90s has been that it is fair use,” Suleyman said. “Anyone can copy it, recreate with it, reproduce with it. That has been freeware, if you like.”

Suleyman said it was more of a “gray area” in situations where some news organizations and others explicitly said they didn’t want tech companies “scraping” content off their websites. “I think that’s going to work its way through the courts,” he said.

The cases are still in the discovery stage and scheduled to drag into 2025. In the meantime, some who believe their professions are threatened by AI business practices have tried to secure private deals to get technology companies to pay a fee to license their archives. Others are fighting back.

“Somebody had to go out and interview real people in the real world and conduct real research by poring over documents and then synthesizing those documents and coming up with a way to render them in clear and simple prose,” said Frank Pine, executive editor of MediaNews Group, publisher of dozens of newspapers including the Denver Post, Orange County Register and St. Paul Pioneer Press. Several of the chain’s newspapers sued OpenAI in April.

“All of that is real work, and it’s work that AI cannot do," Pine said. "An AI app is never going to leave the office and go downtown where there’s a fire and cover that fire.”

Deemed too similar to lawsuits filed late last year, the Massachusetts duo's January complaint has been folded into a consolidated case brought by other nonfiction writers as well as fiction writers represented by the Authors Guild. That means Gage and Basbanes won't likely be witnesses in any upcoming trial in Manhattan's federal court. But in the twilight of their careers, they thought it important to take a stand for the future of their craft.

Gage fled Greece as a 9-year-old, haunted by his mother's 1948 killing by firing squad during the country's civil war. He joined his father in Worcester, Massachusetts, not far from where he lives today. And with a teacher's nudge, he pursued writing and built a reputation as a determined investigative reporter digging into organized crime and political corruption for The New York Times and other newspapers.

Basbanes, as a Greek American journalist, had heard of and admired the elder “hotshot reporter” when he got a surprise telephone call at his desk at Worcester's Evening Gazette in the early 1970s. The voice asked for Mr. Basbanes, using the Greek way of pronouncing the name.

“You were like a talent scout,” Basbanes said. “We established a friendship. I mean, I’ve known him longer than I know my wife, and we’ve been married 49 years.”

Basbanes hasn’t mined his own story like Gage has, but he says it can sometimes take days to craft a great paragraph and confirm all of the facts in it. It took him years of research and travel to archives and auction houses to write his 1995 book “A Gentle Madness” about the art of book collection from ancient Egypt through modern times.

“I love that ‘A Gentle Madness’ is in 1,400 libraries or so,” Basbanes said. “This is what a writer strives for -- to be read. But you also write to earn, to put food on the table, to support your family, to make a living. And as long as that’s your intellectual property, you deserve to be compensated fairly for your efforts.”

Gage took a great professional risk when he quit his job at the Times and went into $160,000 debt to find out who was responsible for his mother's death.

“I tracked down everyone who was in the village when my mother was killed," he said. “And they had been scattered all over Eastern Europe. So it cost a lot of money and a lot of time. I had no assurance that I would get that money back. But when you commit yourself to something as important as my mother’s story was, the risks are tremendous, the effort is tremendous.”

In other words, ChatGPT couldn't do that. But what worries Gage is that ChatGPT could make it harder for others to do that.

“Publications are going to die. Newspapers are going to die. Young people with talent are not going to go into writing,” Gage said. “I'm 84 years old. I don’t know if this is going to be settled while I’m still around. But it’s important that a solution be found.”

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The Associated Press and OpenAI have a licensing and technology agreement that allows OpenAI access to part of AP's text archives.

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