Who owns copyright in works created by a robot?

Cogito ergo sum: I think therefore I am

Every domestic appliance seems to be “smart” nowadays.  By virtue of a connection to the Internet of things, the latest home appliance is regarded as somehow more intelligent. Unfortunately, we’re still some way off true artificial intelligence.  But there are some signs of improvement.  Machines can write sports reports or news articles for instance.

Every great science fiction story about robots explores the idea that a machine can make decisions based on sentiment rather than logic; essentially that it can feel and think. Some machines can learn, with cutting-edge deep learning techniques allowing machines to automatically learn how to detect cancerous cells in images, identify fraudulent financial transactions and translate speech.  Ultimately though, they do so based on parameters that are pre-determined by a human.

The exponential increase in computer processing power over the last 40 years, means that machines can now display characteristics which we would previously have attributed only to human cognitive capability.  These appear to demonstrate an expression of creativity.  Which leads to the question: who owns the copyright in works created entirely by a computer?


The law

In the United Kingdom, under section 9 (1) of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (the CDPA), the author of a work is the person who creates it. Copyright belongs to the author under section 11 of the CDPA (unless it is “made by” an employee in the course of his employment, in which case the employer is the first owner).

For computer-generated works, section 9(3) CDPA states:

In the case of a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work which is computer-generated, the author shall be taken to be the person by whom the arrangements necessary for the creation of the work are undertaken.

“Computer-generated”, in relation to a work, means that the work is generated by computer in circumstances such that there is no human author of the work (section 178 CDPA).


A literary, musical or artistic work created by robots using today’s artificial intelligence is protected by copyright law.  The copyright in question is owned by the human author of the computer program, or their employer if the program was created in the course of employment.  Until we reach the technological singularity where machines can work autonomously enough to write their own code, true artificial intelligence is confined to science fiction.

Image used courtesy of Creative Commons. See here.

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