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Writers Guild of America negotiating committee member John August has publicly disclosed his company’s investment in an artificial intelligence-powered writing tool and is facing some member blowback as the WGA is seeking to regulate the use of the technology in its current negotiations.
The Big Fish and Aladdin screenwriter (and co-host of the popular Scriptnotes podcast) on Friday posted a blog entry about his involvement with Sudowrite, an “AI writing partner” fueled by OpenAI’s GPT-3 that purports to generate early drafts, perform revisions and offer synonyms and word suggestions for writers. In the post, August — who beyond his writing work helms the Quote-Unquote Apps company, which is behind the Weekend Read and Highland apps — says that he was first introduced to Sudowrite founder Amit Gupta in August 2021, when the company was focused on prose fiction. (As of Friday, the service was advertising to writers online that it would help them “write your novel or screenplay faster.”) He tried an early demo at that time, over a year before ChatGPT entered the public consciousness, and his company “made a small investment in Amit’s company and started talking about ways actual writers might use this technology,” he writes.
August adds in the post, “I’m listed as an advisor to Sudowrite, but that overstates my involvement. I haven’t hyped it up or used it beyond those initial few weeks.” He says that, to his knowledge, his books and scripts haven’t been used to train the technology and “neither I nor my company ever made a cent from our investment in Sudowrite, and never incorporated any of their stuff into the apps we sell.”
As of early Friday, August was listed as one of several prominent writers endorsing the product, alongside novelist Hugh Howey and journalist Mark Frauenfelder. “It really does feel like magic,” August’s quote read. By Friday afternoon, August’s name and quote about the product were no longer visible on Sudowrite’s website. The Writers Guild of America West has tweeted out August’s post on his involvement with Sudowrite, stating, “Read how WGA Negotiating Committee member @johnaugust’s history with AI informed his concerns on AI’s use in generating content.”
Regulation of artificial intelligence is one of the WGA’s negotiations priorities in 2023 in talks with studios and streamers that have resulted in the union’s current strike. The WGA is attempting to ensure that AI-generated content cannot be used as source material for adaptation and cannot be used to write or rewrite what is considered “literary material” under the contract; the guild is also pushing to prohibit projects covered under its contract to be used as fodder to train AI.
August has become one of the most outspoken guild leaders on the topic of the regulation of AI in scripwriting, telling The Hollywood Reporter earlier this month, “The challenge is we want to make sure that these technologies are tools used by writers and not tools used to replace writers. The worry is that down the road you can see some producer or executive trying to use one of these tools to do a job that a writer really needs to be doing.”
In a separate interview with THR about ChatGPT for a story on ChatGPT published in January, August did disclose his involvement with Sudowrite. “I should say for full disclosure, I’m a very minor investor in a company called Sudowrite, which was well before ChatGPT,” he told THR at the time. “Mostly because I’ve been curious about it for a long time to see where it goes. Again, I wanna make sure these are tools used by writers instead of replacing writers.”
August argues in his Friday blog post that his early experiences with tools like Sudowrite helped alert the guild to the potential pitfalls of generative AI for writers. With Sudowrite initially focused on prose fiction, August says AI’s implications for screenwriting first “set off alarm bells” in June 2022, after he saw a peer use an early iteration of OpenAI’s GPT to write a script. Following that experience but before ChatGPT debuted in November 2022, he says he communicated with the union about the burgeoning technology. Eventually, “The WGA West assembled a board committee to study the issue, ultimately recommending the proposal which was included in our pattern of demands,” August writes.
In an interview with THR on Friday, August said he did not disclose his investment in Sudowrite to the WGA: “I didn’t really consider it related, Sudowrite was doing prose fiction-y kind of stuff,” he says, and to his knowledge, he was never asked about disclosures in the process.
Still, August’s involvement with Sudowrite has sparked some backlash from WGA members, both before and after Friday’s blog post. Tweeted Mixed Signals writer Eric Tipton, “Hey @johnaugust, interested to know how it appears you’re endorsing @sudowrite an AI that will write your book for you, while arguing as a member of @WGAWest that AI threatens writer jobs.” Added Motherland: Fort Salem writer Kay Reindl, “Why are you endorsing @sudowrite, a tool that replaces writers, @johnaugust? I hear Silo is great @hughhowey. Did humans write it? Would you rather have it be written by AI?”
Straight Outta Compton writer Jonathan Herman tweeted to August, “They have your picture and an endorsement quote on their website. I know you have all our best interests in mind and I wouldn’t question your motives, you have my respect, but every writer i know really hates this company and their current PR push right in the middle of a strike.”
On the invite-only “WGA Writers” Facebook group, an unofficial forum for guild writers, some union members have gone as far as to suggest that August recuse himself from the negotiating committee, with one citing a “conflict of interest” in having August as an investor in an A.I. company and also a labor negotiator on A.I. issues. Others raised concerns about the optics of the situation.
In his interview with THR on Friday, August said, “I can understand why some have concerns about these tools and also someone can have concerns about making sure we make the best possible deal that addresses the real, live concerns about AI.” He adds, “The company that I talked to two years ago is not one of the companies that we’re striking against… if I hadn’t had exposure to what this company was doing, and then really more the follow-up conversation with these writers who are trying to use a similar tool to write a screenplay, I don’t know that we would’ve had as much ramp-up into thinking about this as an issue, and we might not have as prepared for it this negotiation cycle.”
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