UPDATED 18:55 EDT / JUNE 28 2024


Microsoft AI CEO Mustafa Suleyman describes content on the open web as ‘freeware’

A prominent Microsoft Corp. executive said that content on the open web is “freeware” in a recent discussion on whether artificial intelligence models may use such material.

Mustafa Suleyman, chief executive officer of Microsoft AI, made the remarks during a Tuesday interview at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Windows Central reported the discussion today. Following a question on whether “AI companies have effectively stolen the world’s IP,” Suleyman replied in the negative. He argued that AI models can use content on the open web because it’s effectively freeware, or intellectual property that can be used and modified at no charge. 

“With respect to content that is already on the open web, the social contract of that content since the ’90s has been that it is fair use,” Suleyman said. “Anyone can copy it, recreate with it, reproduce with it. That has been freeware, if you like. That’s been the understanding.”

Suleyman added that some types of web content may not necessarily qualify as freeware. In particular, he pointed to content from publishers that have instructed AI providers not to crawl their websites. 

“There’s a separate category where a website or a publisher or a news organization had explicitly said, ‘do not scrape or crawl me for any other reason than indexing me so that other people can find that content.’ That’s a gray area and I think that’s going to work its way through the courts,” Suleyman said.

Suleyman became the CEO of Microsoft AI earlier this year after previously holding the same role at Inflection AI Inc., a large language model developer he had co-founded in 2022. Microsoft hired Suleyman, Inflection AI co-founder Karén Simonyan and many of the startup’s other staffers in March through a deal reportedly worth $650 million. The company also agreed to license Inflection AI’s LLMs.

Before Inflection AI, Suleyman cofounded DeepMind, a U.K.-based AI company that was acquired by Google LLC in 2014. DeepMind went on to become a core part of the search giant’s machine learning research group. Suleyman was the head of applied AI at the group prior to launching Inflection AI.

The executive’s remarks this week on AI models’ use of online content drew significant attention because the topic is the focus of several ongoing lawsuits. Some of those lawsuits were filed against Microsoft and OpenAI.

In December, The New York Times sued the two companies over the training dataset that was used to develop some of OpenAI’s LLMs. The dataset allegedly drew on Common Crawl, a repository of web content that contains 16 million records from websites operated by the Times. Additionally, the lawsuit charges that ChatGPT and Bing sometimes provide access to paywalled articles.

This past April, eight newspapers operated by investment firm Alden Global Capital filed a similar lawsuit against Microsoft and OpenAI. The group is accusing the two companies of using articles in their AI services without permission.

Photo: Christopher Wilson/Wikimedia 

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