Programmer and lawyer Matthew Butterick has sued Microsoft, GitHub, and OpenAI, alleging that GitHub’s Copilot violates the terms of open-source licenses and infringes the rights of programmers. GitHub Copilot, released in June 2022, is an AI-based programming aid that uses the OpenAI Codex to generate real-time source code and function recommendations in Visual Studio. The tool was trained with machine learning using billions of lines of code from public repositories and can transform natural language into code snippets across dozens of programming languages.
“We are challenging the legality of GitHub Pilot,” said programmer and lawyer Matthew Butterick, who filed the lawsuit with the help of the San Francisco-based Joseph Saveri Law Firm, in a press statement. “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.”
The lawsuit, which was filed last Friday, is in its early stages. In particular, the court has not yet certified the proposed class of programmers who have allegedly been harmed. But speaking to The Verge, Butterick and lawyers Travis Manfredi and Cadio Zirpoli of the Joseph Saveri Law Firm said they expected the case to have a huge impact on the wider world of generative AI.
Some programmers have gone as far as to call this “open-source laundering,” and the legal implications of this approach were demonstrated after the launch of the AI tool. “It appears Microsoft is profiting from others’ work by disregarding the conditions of the underlying open-source licenses and other legal requirements,” comments Joseph Saveri, the lawyer representing Butterick in the litigation. To make matters worse, people have reported cases of Copilot leaking secrets published on public repositories by mistake and thus included in the training set, like API keys.