Not even NYT bestsellers are safe from AI cover art

A prominent fantasy novel features a cover apparently generated with artificial intelligence, sparking complaints from artists and book enthusiasts. Earlier this month, readers noted that the back of the UK edition of Sarah J. Maas’ House of Earth and Blood credits Adobe Stock for the illustration of a wolf on its cover. The illustration matches an image created by user Aperture Vintage and marked as AI-generated on Adobe’s site. The move has led to criticism of both Maas and Bloomsbury Publishing, one of the world’s leading independent publishing houses.

While stock image services like Getty Images have prohibited AI-generated illustrations to avoid copyright disputes, Adobe has notably welcomed AI onto its Adobe Stock platform under specific criteria. Such content must be clearly labeled as AI-generated, and contributors must review the terms of any generative AI tools they use to create the images to ensure they have “all the necessary rights” to license them for commercial use. The rules are meant to avoid legal headaches. But the field of AI copyright is muddy, untested territory, and Adobe’s rules don’t clearly address all the issues it raises.

Bloomsbury rose to fame in the UK after it began publishing J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter franchise in 1997. Maas is currently one of Bloomsbury’s top authors, best known for her young adult fantasy series like Throne of Glass (2012), A Court of Thorns and Roses (2015), and Crescent City (2020) — the franchise that House of Earth and Blood is part of. She has sold over 12 million copies of her books, many of which have made it to the New York Times bestsellers list, and a televised adaptation of A Court of Thorns and Roses is currently in development at Hulu. The publisher, Maas, Adobe, and Aperture Vintage did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Verge.

Bloomsbury’s cover has exacerbated human artists’ concerns that publishers could replace them with text-to-image generators like Midjourney and Stable Diffusion. “Bloomsbury is one of the major publishing houses,” said freelance artist Kala Elizabeth on Twitter. “They CAN afford to hire real illustrators instead of purchasing Adobe stock, which is where this AI content is from.” Other publishers have attracted similar scrutiny for using AI-generated artwork on covers. Tor Books issued an apology in December last year, claiming it was unaware that the cover image selected for Christopher Paolini’s Fractal Noise novel was created by AI. While Maas hasn’t acknowledged the image’s provenance, and it’s not clear what — if any — involvement she had in the process, she’s praised the design of the cover on her Instagram page.

Adobe launched its own Firefly AI image generator that it says is trained only on content that’s licensed or out of copyright. But those assurances don’t apply to images found in Adobe Stock, raising questions about whether copyrighted work was used to train the image generator that produced it. Many AI systems are built around datasets containing artwork scraped from the internet without the consent of the original artist, sometimes even displaying signatures from the original artwork within a generated final image. This has led some artists to believe that all AI-generated art is unethical as it can profit from the work of human artists. It isn’t clear whether Adobe is assessing images to ensure they comply with its rules about copyright or whether it’s placing the legal responsibilities on creators.