Hollywood writers beat AI but what can “normal” workers learn from the battle?

Striking Hollywood writers have set a major precedent with a deal that sets limits on how artificial intelligence is used in their industry. The dispute was one of the first major contests between workers and their bosses who have been racing to use a new generation of accessible AI.

The deal feels like a victory for anyone concerned about how AI use impacts the rights, conditions and wages of human workers, and it may set a template for similar deals in other industries.

But this is Hollywood we’re talking about. There’s no guarantee this triumphant early entry in the saga will be followed by decent sequels.

Hollywood’s AI deal with writers

After being on strike for 148 days, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) approved an agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers including strong protections about AI use in the film and television industry.

The deal includes assurances that generative AI tools like ChatGPT can’t be used to rewrite a human writer’s work, or vice versa. AI also can’t be used to generate movie and TV scripts which a human writer would then be forced to edit or rewrite for a lower fee than if they’d written it themselves. When hiring writers, producers also have to disclose whether AI has been used in the development of the project.

The deal allows writers to protect their work from being used to train large language models, a practice that many writers, visual artists and creatives describe as wholesale plagiarism.

But it’s important to note that this is a deal between one union and its employers, and isn’t a deal with the AI companies such as OpenAI. Companies that operate LLMs that form the basis of ChatGPT, Dall-E and Midjourney.

The writers won significant concessions over streaming data transparency, pay and staffing. But their victory over the use of AI is also important to the rest of us. MIT economist Simon Johnson told The Guardian, “I’m hoping it will be a model for the rest of the economy.”

Will you get a Hollywood deal?

The WGA deal establishes clear definitions and enforceable guardrails to prevent bosses from replacing humans or reducing their pay. That’s good news for all of us as bosses everywhere look at the potential of artificial intelligence tools.

Another test is imminent: the Screen Actors’ Guild (SAG-AFTRA) remains on strike amid continuing negotiations about the use of AI to artificially recreate a person’s face, voice or likeness. When it reaches a deal, it may show how other unions can build off these rules imposed on AI use.

But Hollywood creators and movie stars have relatively strong unions, and cover one specific industry. Disputes in other sectors may not get anything like the same results.

One crucial point unions and workers in other industries should note is that the WGA fought to set limits on AI exploitation, but not to ban the technology completely. Workers can choose to use AI for their own efficiency and benefit – for a writer, that might mean research, generating ideas or speeding up admin. Acceptance of the technology’s inevitable rise gives both parties room to negotiate.

But even if employees in other sectors do accept the use of AI, they may not get such favourable results. Unlike wage or staffing issues, which can be settled by collective bargaining between unions and employers, discussion of technology in the United States and other countries falls under managerial prerogative. Which means that other industry bosses, far from following Hollywood’s concessions around AI, could simply refuse to discuss it.

The actors’ union restarts negotiations next week. The spotlight will soon move on from Hollywood, but this saga will continue.

Richard Trenholm
Richard Trenholm

Richard is a former CNET writer who had a ringside seat at the very first iPhone announcement, but soon found himself steeped in the world of cinema. He's now part of a two-person content agency, Rockstar Copy, and covers technology with a cinematic angle for TechFinitive.com