UK arts union ‘ready’ to strike if AI agreements aren’t reached

AI union Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller at SAG AFTRA strike. Image credit: lev radin / Shutterstock

Equity, the British union for performing artists, is ready for industrial action reminiscent of the 2023 Hollywood strikes if key agreements are not reached regarding AI and intellectual property.

Speaking to UKTN, Equity trade union official Liam Budd said the group is “industrial [action] ready” as it explores modernising film and TV agreements to “establish provisions around the use of AI”.

The union has expressed significant concern over the use of AI in the arts, in particular since June 2022 when it launched the Stop AI Stealing the Show campaign.

Budd criticised the government’s “wait and see approach” to AI regulation. He said it “isn’t helping the creative industry” because generative AI technology continues to advance while the UK awaits legislation.

“We don’t have clear direction from the government,” Budd told UKTN.

The Conservatives’ AI ministers have stated there are no plans to legislate AI in “the short term” as the government seeks to strike a balance between innovation and regulation.

The government is currently working with users and rights holders on a code of practice on copyright and AI.

“Everyone would benefit from having a clear direction from government about what the law is around AI and intellectual property.”

Budd said for Equity, the goal goes beyond clarity, with the firm continuously campaigning for “strengthened rights for performers”.

The union’s primary demand is an update to the intellectual property framework for performers that ensures artists’ work, voice or likeness can only be used by generative AI with their explicit consent and with financial benefit to them.

Protections from AI was a major sticking point in the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artistsstrikes in the US. A deal was eventually reached, bringing to an end the 118-day strike.

Recent advancements in AI voice cloning technology and generative AI video, backed by millions in venture capital funding, have exacerbated the union’s urgency in securing protection for artists.

London and New York-based AI startup ElevenLabs recently secured a unicorn valuation of more than $1bn following a £63m Series B round.

ElevenLabs specialises in AI-generated text-to-speech audio with realistic, human-like speech that can even be based on real public figures.

Budd said Equity had “introductory conversations” with ElevenLabs and similar companies and is “very open to having constructive conversations around establishing fair contracts”.

The principal goal for the union as of now is to establish collective bargaining focused on AI. Budd said this was a unique challenge as there is not currently a centralised representative of AI content creation firms that can be negotiated with in the same way that there is for film and television producers.

“It’s all very fragmented,” Budd said, “each engager has different terms and conditions, which means that there are some who are doing things that are good and others that are not.”