ArtStation Hurts its Creators with AI, Gets Slammed by Protests

photo of anti-AI protest visuals against artstation

It was inevitable that pushback against AI-generated images would grow on the internet and elsewhere. Now it’s visibly growing in some corners.

One of the most recent incidents involves a sort of mass online protest against the website ArtStation after artists noticed that AI-generated art was cropping up on the online platform.

Just to note here, when we refer to AI-generated art, we mean images or pseudo-photos that are entirely created by AI algorithms with only human text prompts and reference images as guidance. This does not include art made digitally by a human artist by hand.

These days though, the two are getting harder than ever before to distinguish.

The first signs of trouble for artists on ArtStation happened in early December when the platform homepage started showcasing AI-rendered art. This rapidly spilled over into a backlash by users of the site.

Of course, AI-rendered art is increasingly appearing on many stock image websites and digital animation platforms.

Some have openly embraced it as long as it’s categorized as what it is and others are even incorporating their own internal AI-generating systems.

A recent example of this latter practice is the website Shutterstock, which first banned AI-rendered art, but has since then controversially partnered with DALL-E to add its own internal AI-rendering of stock photos. Adobe has also done the same on its stock image platform and now allows for categorized AI-rendered art.

In the case of ArtStation however, the issue is more sensitive because the site is famous as a premium digital art platform for both professional and amateur creators.

Many people working in media, film production, digital art and video game design regularly use the site to buy and sell art. Having AI-rendered images that almost anyone can create with minimal effort and time was bound to feel like a slap to the face for many of these creatives.

Last Tuesday, members of ArtStation’s creator community took to social media to protest against the platform’s apparent permissiveness with AI art. Many of them uploaded fairly creative “NO AI ART” images to social media and in their own portfolios.

 

The most notable of these features a large red “forbidden” symbol with the word AI inside it in all sorts of different styles. Others are even more creative.

ArtStation has been hashtagged in many of the Twitter releases of these posts by artists that use the platform.

By Wednesday, the trending page for ArtStation was absolutely flooded with these “No AI” image compositions as thousands of users followed others’ examples.

The obvious argument by the protesting artists is that ArtStation is completely undermining both the skill and work that these creators put into their products on the site. This is not to mention the spirit of what artistic creation is supposed to mean according to them.

As one creator commented on Twitter,

“Seeing AI art being featured on the main page of Artstation saddens me. I love playing with MJ as much as anyone else, but putting something that was generated using a prompt alongside artwork that took hundreds of hours and years of experience to make is beyond disrespectful.”

 

Another creator showcased two different images to demonstrate how some of those posting the AI-rendered art have been stealing from original creations for the visual prompts being used to generate their AI creations.

 

This brings us to another point being made by many artists of all kinds, which is that many of these AI images are only rendered in the first place because the AIs that make them were trained with imagery from human photographers and graphic artists.

Often, this has been done without their permission or knowledge and amounts to a form of mass-scale creative theft.

More fundamentally, ArtStation itself became a successful platform after being adopted by thousands of artists who trusted it to respect their work enough to help them economically.

That the platform then seemingly denigrates its main base of users by displacing their work with visuals that require no major effort seems like a major betrayal to those protesting.

ArtStation itself eventually responded with a new FAQ titled “Use of AI Software on ArtStation

In the FAQ, it defends the on-platform presence of AI-generated art by arguing that “content guidelines do not prohibit the use of AI in the process of artwork being posted.”

 

This statement somewhat disingenuously sidesteps the major difference between art made with the help of an AI and art almost entirely created by an AI with minimal human participation.

In another section of the FAQ, the platform claims that “users’ portfolios should only feature artwork that they create, and we encourage users to be transparent in the process.”

This may be so, but if they’re openly allowing the presence of AI-generated art, the “created” artwork that’s really made by AIs will continue to appear.

This can easily send artists in a race to the bottom in which they are forced to compete with others who don’t care about creative skill or transparency.

This is not to mention the desires of buyers, who in many cases won’t care either way as long as something complies with their needs for commercially viable visuals.

ArtStation claims it doesn’t want to “become a gatekeeper with site terms that stifle AI research and commercialization when it respects artists’ choices and copyright law.”  However, it’s placing itself in a dicey position.

By allowing AI-rendered art for the sake of more uploading by users from which it takes its cut anyhow, the site is at risk of becoming a bottom-barrel commodity vendor instead of a place where the work of real creatives can be found.

It’s possible that ArtStation doesn’t care about this happening, but it could eventually be put into a tough competitive space against other platforms that can easily do the same thing.

Human creators who produce their own art will then likely migrate to other platforms that respect human work and cater to buyers who want the same.

On the most fundamental level, While ArtStation is so far openly disregarding its creator base and justifying it with roundabout arguments and half-measures, the commoditization of digital art has inescapably arrived.

Despite the earnest protests of these artists, this process will create upheavals across the board and only consumer demand can decide how human-created digital works compete economically.

After noting that its initial FAQ wasn’t stopping the widespread protests on its homepage and on social media, ArtStation took further token action:

The platform later further refined its FAQ and policies by telling its creators that it has created a new “NoAI” tag that lets them stop their work from being included in AI systems for training purposes.

 

We’ll have to see how well that works since anyone at all can scrape imagery off ArtStation and later use it to train an AI anyhow.

It’s also worth noting that ArtStation made a rahter small effort with even this policy because the “NoAI” opt-out has to manually be applied by artists to their images because opt-in is set by default.

Essentially, despite the token effort, the site seems to tacitly be demonstrating that it doesn’t want artists to opt out, possibly because it’s selling imagery to AI platforms for training purposes.

Their own text describing the “NoAI” option states:

“When you tag your projects with “NoAI” ArtStation will automatically assign an HTML “NoAI” meta tag. This will explicitly disallow the use of your content by AI systems. We’ve also updated our Terms of Service to prohibit companies from using NoAI-tagged content to train AI art generators.”

They also state,

“We’ve added an account setting you can use to tag all of your current and future projects as NoAI. To access it, open your Profile menu, click Settings, then in the Account section check the box next to “NoAI Tagging” and click Save.”

Unsurprisingly, the new option didn’t please many of the protestors. As one clarified in a Tweeted visual:

twitter image about ArtStation AI policies

The protest continues for now and some artists have even threatened to completely remove their work from the platform.

That however likely won’t stop others from stepping in their place who don’t mind accepting these AI policies as long as they can scrape up at least some earnings with rapidly generated AI images.

In other words, as I mentioned above: a race to the bottom and much greater commoditization. But then, it’s very plausible that ArtStation’s owners are aware of this and even actively working towards it.

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Shotkit Journalist, Writer & Reviewer

Stephan Jukic is a technology and photography journalist and experimental photographer who spends his time living in both Canada and Mexico. He loves cross-cultural street photo exploration and creating fine art photo compositions.

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