Luddites had the right of things all the way back in the 1800s. When textile factory owners in early 19th century England used the industrialization of their industry as an excuse to underpay and overwork employees in dangerous, dehumanizing conditions, the secret organization of workers set about smashing the machines of the capitalists who exploited them. Today, the Writers’ Guild of America faces a similar threat from those in control of a new transformative technology, generative AI, and it’s part of the reason they’re currently on strike for better working conditions.
On March 7, 2023, WGA members voted to approve the 2023 Pattern of Demands by a count of 5,553 voting yes to 90 no’s. On Tuesday morning, more than 11,000 members of the Writers Guild of America shut Hollywood down for the first time since 2007 when they last had to fight for their livelihoods.
“Though we negotiated intent on making a fair deal … the studios’ responses to our proposals have been wholly insufficient, given the existential crisis writers are facing,” read a statement from WGA leadership to CNN on Wednesday. “They have closed the door on their labor force and opened the door to writing as an entirely freelance profession. No such deal could ever be contemplated by this membership.”
As such, the guild is demanding significant increases to the industry’s minimum compensation “to address the devaluation of writing in all areas of television, new media and features” as well as standardize the amount writers are paid writing for streaming or theatrically released features, among a host of other long-deferred needs. The guild is also looking towards the future in its negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) in efforts to prevent the studios’ from using AI and their own words) to put WGA writers out of work.
“It is not the tool itself, it’s not an objection to the tool,” WGA member and writer behind Sinister, Doctor Strange and The Black Phone, C. Robert Cargill told Engadget regarding generative AI systems. “What we have asked of the studios is that they do not generate any material themselves that they have not been handed by writers.”
This is because writing contracts in Hollywood are very specific about the circumstances of how credit is attributed because residual payments are paid out based on them, Cargill explains. For example, writing the first draft of a feature pays at a higher rate than the subsequent rewrites and the amount of residuals the first screenwriter receives depends on what percentage of their original script made it into the final product.
The immediate fear of AI isn’t that us writers will have our work replaced by artificially generated content. It’s that we will be underpaid to rewrite that trash into something we could have done better from the start. This is what the WGA is opposing and the studios want.
— C. Robert Cargill (@Massawyrm) May 2, 2023
“The fear here is very simple,” Cargill said, and one that is already being realized in the wake of the strike’s launch. “Which is, they get an idea and they put it into one of the generative programs… and then it kicks out something that looks like a script. Then what they do is they hand it over to a writer and say, ‘we’re going to pay you your rewrite wage to go ahead and make it sound more like a human wrote it and to fix any of the problems.”
This would essentially preclude human — more importantly, unionized — writers from earring the highest pay rate while forcing them to still perform the highest pay grade work. “What Hollywood can be doing is cutting us out of that very lucrative first step of generating the initial script and story ideas,” he said.
The guild is also, rightfully, concerned with the potential for their existing writing content be used to train future iterations of generative AIs. “I had a fan reach out to me because he was playing around with [ChatGPT] a few weeks ago and wanted to get a couple ideas to a horror story,” Cargill recalled. “He says, ‘Give me some horror prompts based on, I want to write a horror movie that is a mystery thriller, I want it to be creepy and kind of like Sinister.’”
“What it spit back out was the plot to Sinister,” Cargill, who wrote Sinister. “A family moves into a house and finds a videotape of the murder of the family that previously lived there, and the only thing that was changed from my movie is ours happened on film and not video — and that’s how it changed it.”
Cargill’s concern is that “by using our previous scripts, what the studios will be doing is essentially getting lines of our dialogue and our jokes sent back into the industry — but without our attribution, without our credit, without our pay.”
He elaborates that the guild is not seeking a full ban on generative AI’s use and that screen are welcome to use it if they want. In the same way that “you don’t have to use a computer with spellcheck. You can write your script on yellow line paper by hand if you want — Quentin Tarantino still does that.”
“You don’t you don’t have to use the technology,” he continued. “But if you want to you can but what we want is to make sure studios aren’t using that to replace that and then pay us lower rates just to rewrite what a computer sent back.”
The WGA did not respond to multiple written requests for comment. The AMPTP issued the following response:
We’re creative companies and we value the work of creatives. The best stories are original, insightful and often come from people’s own experiences. AI raises hard, important creative and legal questions for everyone. For example, writers want to be able to use this technology as part of their creative process, without changing how credits are determined, which is complicated given AI material can’t be copyrighted. So it’s something that requires a lot more discussion, which we’ve committed to doing. Also, it’s important to note that the current WGA Agreement already defines a “writer” to exclude any “corporate or impersonal purveyor” of literary material, meaning that only a “person” can be considered a writer and enjoy the terms and conditions of the Basic Agreement. For example, AI-generated material would not be eligible for writing credit.