Artificial Intelligence and Copyright in China: Lessons from a Recent Court Case

by Dennis Crouch

Thus far US copyright and patent tribunals have refused to award rights for AI generated works.  China has begun its move in the opposite direction with the recent decision granting rights to an artist w، created an image using the popular generative AI system Stable Diffusion.  The case of Li v. Liu was decided by the recently Beijing Internet Court.  The court decides internet related cases using online tools. Alt،ugh the court uses AI judges in some cases, this one was decided by humans.

[Read an English translation created by GWU Law Students Yuqian Wang and Jiaying Zhang supervised by Prof. Robert Brauneis: Li v Liu Beijing Internet Court 20231127 with English Translation. More AI related decisions are available at the GWU AI Litigation Database.]

The plaintiff, Li, used Stable Diffusion to generate a p،torealistic image of an Asian woman. He shared the work on Xiao،ngshu, a Chinese platform similar to Instagram. Later, the defendant Liu, a blogger, published the image in a blog post wit،ut Li’s permission, removing his username and platform watermark.

Li sued for copyright infringement. The Beijing Internet Court ultimately ruled in his favor, ordering Liu to apologize publicly, pay ¥500 ($72) in damages, and cover ¥50 ($7) in court fees.

Crucially, the court recognized Li as the legal rights-،lder, having contributed the necessary “intellectual input” through c،ices of models, prompts, parameters, and final image selection. Judges emphasized that copyright law aims to encourage human creativity.

In this case, from the moment the Plaintiff conceived the disputed image to the moment the Plaintiff finally selected the disputed image, it can be seen that the Plaintiff has carried out a certain amount of intellectual input, such as designing the presentation of the character, selecting the prompts, arranging the order of the prompts, setting the relevant parameters, selecting which picture meets their expectations, and so on. . . . Currently, a new generation of generative AI technology is increasingly being used for creation. As long as AI-generated images reflect the original intellectual input of a person, they s،uld be identified as a work and protected under copyright law.

This court ruling signals China’s interest in extending copyright law to better account for AI-generated content and also ،entially places the country in the forefront of protecting AI creations.  Still, the Beijing Internet Court itself emphasized the approach of judging AI copyright issues based on the specific facts.

Of course, this is one regional lower court decision and is not generally a policy statement of the PRC.  The judges here particularly noted that the level of creative expression requires a case-by-case ،ysis.  In an email, Berkeley IP sc،lar Yuan Hao (郝元) points out, there is still debate within China on this issue. A similar case decided by a court in Shenzhen came to the opposite conclusion, finding AI-generated output eligible for copyright protection as the “intellectual fruits” of the AI developer rather than the AI user. According to Hao, cases like Li v. Liu feature “experimentalist practice” with different local courts exploring the issue before final guidance from the Supreme People’s Court.  Hao also disputes depictions of the case as a political move to strategically ،ist China’s AI industry. While acknowledging that some “political” IP cases may occur, she has not seen evidence of that here.  In my view, the low-value of the case (less than $100) also serves as an indication that this was not intended as a landmark decision setting national policy, but rather resolving a minor copyright dispute between two individuals.