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Class-action lawsuit filed against Microsoft's GitHub Copilot for software piracy

A laptop display with a coding IDE open and spectacles in the front
Image credits: Kevin Ku (Pexels)

GitHub Copilot sounds like a fascinating tool on paper. Launched in preview by Microsoft over a year ago, it's basically an AI-powered extension that uses the code present in all public repositories on GitHub and then write code on your behalf based on simple prompts. For example, you could just write "Take an average of the numbers in this list" and GitHub Copilot will autonomously write the code to do this based on its training on GitHub codebases.

Microsoft announced GitHub Copilot's general availability a few months ago at $10/month, but pretty much since its inception, the product has been criticized for its legal status in the sense that it uses the code written by other people without their permission and that Microsoft profits off of these practices. Today, a class-action lawsuit has been filed against the AI-powered pair programming tool.

The lawsuit has been initiated by Matthew Butterick, who is a programmer, author, and lawyer. He is being represented by the Joseph Saveri Law Firm from California. Together, they are claiming that Microsoft is engaging in open-source software piracy by using billions of lines of code written by millions of programmers under various licenses including MIT, GPL, and Apache. The defendants named in the lawsuit are GitHub, Microsoft, and its technology partner OpenAI.

Butterick claims that Microsoft has violated a number of requirements for using this code including attribution, GitHub's own policies, the California Consumer Privacy Act, and DMCA 1202 - which "for­bids the removal of copy­right-man­age­ment infor­ma­tion". Butterick goes on to say that:

This is the first step in what will be a long jour­ney. As far as we know, this is the first class-action case in the US chal­leng­ing the train­ing and out­put of AI sys­tems. It will not be the last. AI sys­tems are not exempt from the law. Those who cre­ate and oper­ate these sys­tems must remain account­able. If com­pa­nies like Microsoft, GitHub, and OpenAI choose to dis­re­gard the law, they should not expect that we the pub­lic will sit still. AI needs to be fair & eth­i­cal for every­one. If it’s not, then it can never achieve its vaunted aims of ele­vat­ing human­ity. It will just become another way for the priv­i­leged few to profit from the work of the many.

Meanwhile, Joseph Saveri of the Joseph Saveri Law Firm noted that:

I am grateful to the programmers and users who came forward to bring this case to fruition and ensure that corporations like Microsoft, GitHub, and OpenAI cannot unfairly profit from the work of open-source creators. This case represents the first major step in the battle against intellectual-property violations in the tech industry arising from artificial-intelligence systems. In this case, the work of open-source programmers is being exploited. But this will not be the last community of creators who are affected by AI systems. Our firm is committed to standing up for these creators and ensuring that companies developing AI products are held accountable under the law.

You can view the 56-page class-action lawsuit document here.

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