Web Design & SEO


Web Design & SEO

Is AI Art Theft?

This isn’t going to be a long article. I was just playing with Midjourney today and something jumped out. 

If you’re not familiar, Midjourney is a text-to-image AI art generator. You feed it some text (a ‘prompt’) and it generates images based on whatever you tell it. I’ve been a subscriber since late 2022.

Anyway, today I typed in ‘search engine optimisation’, one of our services, as a prompt, and here’s what it came back with:

Hmm, I thought. That image is awfully familiar. Where have I seen this before?

It’s this image from Unsplash by Carlos Muza:

As you can see, the AI’s image is a 1:1 reconstruction of this photo by Carlos Murza.

The only obvious difference is the AI randomly added a coffee cup and phone. I ran a couple of variations and within two clicks, one came back without it:

Just to be 100% clear, I didn’t give Midjourney the original photograph.

I just typed the words ‘search engine optimisation’ and it output this image.

The usual AI caveats apply – the text is gobbledegook, there’s an extra doorknob out of focus, the wood effect continues into the wall… But it’s the similarities, not these little errors, that are striking.

Look at the peaks and troughs of the graph. The angle of the screen, the reflection in the desk, the criss cross of the shelves behind, then what’s on the screen: the pie chart, the bar charts, the browser tabs, the sidebar…

It’s not ‘inspired by’ the photo. It’s a straight up copy of it.

Granted, ‘search engine optimisation’ is not a creative prompt. And I should make clear the original is a royalty free photograph, not a paid image. It’s a ‘stock’ image that shows up everywhere, on just about every digital marketing agency page. It will have been seen countless times when the AI model was learning to associate images with the term ‘SEO’.

I understand… but still. You can see why people could have a problem with this.

What do you think?

If it is stealing, is it only a problem if the AI image is a direct copy of another image – like now? Or does it cross the line only at a certain point, once it reaches a particular degree of similarity to a created work?

Shouldn’t artists/authors be compensated when their works are used to ‘train’ computer models which later ‘create’ based on what they’ve seen? It seems hard to argue not.

At minimum, shouldn’t AI tools be forced to credit the human creators from whom they derive their outputs, and in what proportion – – if that is even possible.

And how does all this work with copyright? The original image is free, but I paid Midjourney by using up a credit – a small fee, but a fee nonetheless – to reproduce it. This time it was a free image, but what if it had been an owned image?

It seems there are a boatload of ethical and legal implications to AI that are barely being considered. As always, as with music streaming, social media and the internet in general, tech companies are 100 miles ahead of people or politicians’ understanding of what they’re doing and its implications.

Take a look at the two images side by side.

Blatant theft, or move along, nothing to see here?

Remember, this is the internet, so you can only pick one of two sides. For or against. Absolute support, or total condemnation.

I reserve judgement on AI. I have mixed feelings, based on what I’ve seen, and I think there are positives and negatives. But I just couldn’t resist documenting and sharing this. What do you think? Have you got any examples like this to share? Let me know.

Got a question?

If you have a question about this topic, or anything else to do with websites, SEO and digital marketing, feel free to send us a message

Know someone who needs help with their website? Share this article with them:


About the author

About the author

Christy Bannerman is a web designer based in Glasgow, Scotland, U.K., with a passion for helping small businesses stand out and grow their business online. He runs The Works Web Design, a company that brings premium website and marketing services to small businesses at an affordable cost.

About the author

Picture of Christy Bannerman

Christy Bannerman

Christy is a website designer based in Glasgow, Scotland, U.K. with a passion for helping small businesses stand out and grow their business online. He runs The Works Web Design, a company on a mission to bring premium web design and digital marketing to small businesses at an affordable cost.