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Will AI image generators kill the stock image industry? It’s a question asked by many following the rise of text-to-image AI models in recent years. The answer from the industry’s incumbents, though, is “no” — not if we can start selling AI-generated content first.

Today, stock image giant Shutterstock has announced an extended partnership with OpenAI, which will see the AI lab’s text-to-image model DALL-E 2 directly integrated into Shutterstock “in the coming months.” In addition, Shutterstock is launching a “Contributor Fund” that will reimburse creators when the company sells work to train text-to-image AI models. This follows widespread criticism from artists whose output has been scraped from the web without their consent to create these systems. Notably, Shutterstock is also banning the sale of AI-generated art on its site that is not made using its DALL-E integration.

n a press statement, Shutterstock’s CEO Paul Hennessy said: “The mediums to express creativity are constantly evolving and expanding. We recognize that it is our great responsibility to embrace this evolution and to ensure that the generative technology that drives innovation is grounded in ethical practices.”

Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, said: “We’re excited for Shutterstock to offer DALL-E images to its customers as one of the first deployments through our API, and we look forward to future collaborations as artificial intelligence becomes an integral part of artists’ creative workflows.”

This isn’t the first time Shutterstock and OpenAI have worked together in this domain. From 2021 onwards, Shutterstock sold images and metadata to OpenAI to help create DALL-E (OpenAI’s Altman describes this data as “critical to the training of DALL-E”). Now, with the integration of OpenAI’s text-to-image AI, the partnership is going full circle, and DALL-E’s output will compete with the same individuals whose work was used to train it.

If Shutterstock’s images were as important to creating DALL-E as Altman claims, the platform’s contributors may understandably feel aggrieved that their own content is being used to put them out of a job. This is why Shutterstock is also launching its Contributor Fund, which will be used to pay artists, photographers, and designers when content they uploaded to Shutterstock is sold by the company to firms like OpenAI in order to develop generative AI models.

It’s a significant move — the first major initiative by a platform holder to reimburse creators in this way — but it also underscores the fraught legal and ethical questions surrounding this new technology.

Although scraping or buying data to train AI art generators seems to be legal (covered by Fair Use), many experts worry about future challenges and complications. Getty Images, for example, has banned the sale of AI art on its platform because of fears that its inability to copyright the output of these systems will lead to licensing problems for customers.

When asked about these issues, a spokesperson for Shutterstock told The Verge that there were “lot of questions and uncertainty around this new technology, specifically when it comes to the concept of ownership,” but that the company’s stance is that “because AI content generation models leverage the IP of many artists and their content, AI-generated content ownership cannot be assigned to an individual and must instead compensate the many artists who were involved in the creation of each new piece of content.”

This is why Shutterstock is banning AI art uploaded to its platform by third parties — because it can’t validate the model used to create the content so can’t be sure who owns the copyright. (Of course, banning third-party AI-generated art will also help protect its own business by funneling users towards its DALL-E integration.) And while the company seems to believe it has no legal obligation to reimburse creators whose content is used to train DALL-E, the creation of the Contributor Fund suggests it foresees criticism and possible damage to its reputation.

“Given the collective nature of generative content, we developed a revenue share compensation model where contributors whose content was involved in training generative models will receive a share of the earnings from datasets and downloads of all AI-generated content produced on our platform,” a Shutterstock spokesperson told The Verge. “Contributors will receive a share of the entire contract value paid by platform partners. The share individual contributors receive will be proportionate to the volume of their content and metadata that is included in the purchased datasets.”

Shutterstock says these payouts will be distributed every six months, and will include “both earnings from data deals as well as royalties from generic licensing on Shutterstock.” The company gave no indication of what a typical payout might be.