An Author’s Perspective on the Ethics of AI Illustration

By Nick Tantillo

Want to know why artists hate and fear AI?

Tools like Midjourney, DALL-E, and Stable Diffusion are the proverbial bull in a china shop, except the broken ceramic is the traditional art business.

I think there’s a way to work with this unbottled genie, this maker of wonders and unpaid automaton, without losing our way and ruining the lives of already mostly starving artists.

What are my qualifications? I’ve self-published four AI Illustrated graphic short stories on Ko-Fi and as NFTs on the WAX blockchain. I nearly had one professionally published, but the looming specter of AI controversy may have cut me off at the knees.

I’m friends with dozens of working artists, comic book authors, and writers. People who feel threatened by AI have said that my approach seems fair, so let me share these simple guidelines for possibly building a future with AI augmentation instead of AI replacement.

Use it as a vehicle for YOUR art, not as the art itself

It’s tempting to generate a cool AI piece and think, “I can sell this!” There are a few issues here. It’s becoming clear that you can’t copyright art that isn’t created by a human hand (see the famous monkey self-portrait case). What you can copyright is a unique composition incorporating those elements.

If you decide to generate NFTs using AI art for a quick buck, you’re setting yourself up for copycats later, plus you’re competing with humans who are trying to share their vision and creativity with the world. Don’t you want to share YOUR art?

If you’re a writer, illustrate your writing! If you’re a painter, use the prompts to find new ideas, then paint those yourself. Digital artists can layer and collage these pieces into unique composites. You could even fine-tune the work, correct the lighting, clone brush, and touch up the art until it truly is more than just AI generation.

Don’t use the names of working artists in your prompts

This is stealing bread from the mouths of others. Artists spend years honing their craft. Copying their style for your cool fantasy dragons or copycat art is not cool. This has been debated forever, and there’s no copyright on a style, but selling knock-offs doesn’t establish your unique voice as an artist.

What artist names and styles can you use? Anything in the public domain! Take an online art history course. You might be surprised at the depth of material you can draw from.

I think using artists’ names posthumously is also okay, but that is up to your individual moral compass. They certainly aren’t producing new work, so I consider this more of an homage, and I will fully credit the inspiration in my final piece.

Choose training data with consent or payment for artists

I’m guilty of not doing this, but I would really like to have it available as an option. Right now, the training data for AI includes IPs like Mario and Mickey, which I think is a potential minefield. We all want to generate funny celebrity artwork or put our favorite characters in different settings. I’m of two minds here.

I think it’s fair game to use celebrity images or characters for meme content and social network sharing that is not commercial.

For commercial work, I think the AI training data should only consist of the public domain or consenting artists. Shutterstock recently announced that their AI artwork will use training data from their collections and pay out artists in a sharing agreement. I think more of this is needed.

If you use a closed-source AI generation service like Midjourney, you get whatever they decide is ethical. You have a lot more control in a local solution like Stable Diffusion. I expect court cases will determine a lot of this in due time.

Don’t replace an artist with AI

This will be a hard one for a lot of people. Let’s use a hypothetical children’s book author who can’t draw worth a dime and works a regular job like many of us. They wrote a whimsical story but got sticker shock when they tried to price out hiring an illustrator.

If the book needs illustrations to work but would never recoup the costs of a human doing the job, I think it’s okay to use AI. You’re not taking the position away from anybody.

If you’re a rich celebrity and could work with any artist you like for your self-published children’s book, maybe consider hiring one.

It’s a personal decision for each case. AI wouldn’t displace anybody if you were going to use a piece of stock art for a blog post or website. AI is not an appropriate replacement for developing corporate branding with an artist to communicate your vision to your customers. If you were okay with Fiverr, that’s a different discussion about valuing artists fairly.

Suppose your unique vision (like mine) involves generating thousands of AI pieces to create an art-saturated experience celebrating the weirdness of it all. In that case, there’s no way a human could do it economically, and each piece isn’t meant to command the attention that a commission might. It’s a new way to use this tool to create a compelling story that shares my imagination with the reader through the visual prompts I spent hours perfecting. Personally, it felt like directing a movie on the page.

My answer is AI collaboration augmenting a human-created work of art. That’s what won’t get us killed when they eventually become sentient. That’s what won’t step on the toes of working artists. I believe that is the ethical line I must walk as an author.

Nick Tantillo is a blockchain enthusiast, software developer, and writer. If you would like to read some of his AI collaborative works, please check them out on Ko-Fi!

He is currently querying two novels, a crypto-drama and a YA Epic Fantasy.