Australian artists say Lensa, the app that uses artificial intelligence to generate self-portraits, is stealing their content and calling for tougher copyright laws that track AI-generated art.
But the parent company behind the app has defended its use of the images, saying Lensa learns to create portraits like a human would – by learning different artistic styles.
Over the past month, the AI image generator has evolved across TikTok and Instagram, with users paying to turn photos of themselves into stylized art portraits.
To do this, the application uses Stable Diffusion – a text-to-image conversion application that is trained to learn patterns through an online image database, called LAION-5B.
LAION-5B sources billions of images from the web, and artists say it takes their work without their permission.
Related: What does the Lensa AI app do with my self-portraits and why has it gone viral?
Sydney-based artist and Archibald runner-up Kim Leutwyler said the app replicated distinct styles.
“When I started seeing all these Lensa-generated portraits posted by some of my friends, even other artists, I was immediately skeptical,” Leutwyler said. “Some of the works are distinctly recognizable from the works of other artists.”
“They call it new original work, but some artists see their exact style replicated exactly in brushstrokes, color, composition – techniques that take years and years to hone.”
Leutwyler used the haveibeentrained.com website to search the 5.8 billion images used to train popular AI art models for his own work and found several of his portraits in the database.
“I’ve seen almost every portrait I’ve ever painted. Every painting I’ve shared on the internet,” she said.
“It’s frustrating and feels like a violation. We have not been compensated, we have not been credited.
Leutwyler said copyright laws haven’t kept up with the speed at which technology is changing when it comes to AI art.
“In some you can even see the remains of the artist’s signature in the lower left corner,” Leutwyler said.
In a statement, the company said AI learns to generate art in a “semi-like” way to humans.
“Neural networks learn to recognize specific patterns and connections between images as well as their textual descriptions,” the spokesperson said.
“In this way, the AI develops a mental model, the general operating principles of ‘how to’, which can be broadly applied in the content generation process.”
Once the training is complete, the AI does not refer to the original images but applies what it learned about the styles to the new image, they said.
“In the same way that a human being is able to learn and self-train certain elementary artistic principles by observing art, exploring online imagery and learning about artists and ultimately trying to create something based on those aggregate skills,” the spokesperson said.
“Therefore, one cannot freely apply terms such as ‘counterfeiting’, ‘art theft’ or ‘unlawful’ use to this process.”
The spokesperson denied that the app reproduces the artists’ creative signatures, saying the app has learned to “memorize details” to make it look more like a real painting.
“The blurred silhouettes of visual elements [that one may perceive as signatures] you see in the outputs not using any existing language; often they have no letters,” they said. “Nor do they represent the remains of existing artist signatures.”
But some artists are embracing the new technology and using it to create works.
Melbourne tattoo artist Alina Carr uses Dall-e Image Generator, a text-to-image conversion program to create designs which she says are “prepared”.
“I used the image regeneration program to create designs for me,” Carr said.
“You put a greedy description and it comes with the picture. It does a really bad job – a lot of them are really scary.
Posting the tattoo sheet on Sunday, the artist said the appeal was that the images were often low quality or had a sinister side to them.
“I basically let the computers do the work for me, trying to find ways to make art on and with these weird technological advancements,” Carr said.
“I guess at this point other people like me [will get them as tattoos]people who find it cooked and funny.