top of page

Teacher sues student for $1.5M over picture of an apple.

The Apple of Discord: A Copyright Conundrum

Sarah, a math whiz devoid of artistic expression, faces a dilemma. Graduating Phi Beta Kappa hinges on passing an art class, an anathema to her logical mind.

Ms. Evans, a consummate art teacher, explains to Sarah that she cannot and will not give Sarah high marks unless she actually comes up with at least one worthy picture.   They agree an expressive picture of an apple will be sufficient.

Ms. Evans does not throw Sarah to the wolves and recommends art books, suggests captivating reference images, and guides Sarah through sketching an apple. Ms. Evans teaches Sarah about pencil strokes, shading techniques and so on.


However, Sarah's analytical mind does the rest. She integrates her mathematical prowess, using calculus equations to form an apple on graph paper. She begins to learn how sterile lines morph into graceful curves, hinting at a depth beyond mere representation.

Then, a serendipitous discovery, the camera obscura,

casts a light on Sarah’s journey.

While studying the techniques of the old masters she learns how to create and use a camera obscura to project an apple's image onto paper.  Sarah incorporates its projection into her composition. Graph paper, compass, pencils – tools of mathematical precision – become integral parts of the artwork, a unique blend of Sarah's logic and emotion.


Things work out well.  Sarah is very happy with her artwork, as was Ms. Evans. Sarah happily graduates with her Phi Beta Kappa.

A close friend of Sarah love her apple picture and recommends she submit it to an online art contest.

The result?

A resounding victory and a prize of 1.5 million dollars, is awarded to Sarah. But elation quickly turns to discord when Ms. Evans files a lawsuit claiming copyright infringement.


What follows are the details of this case from which you will need to return a verdict.


Ms. Evans' Case:

Nurturing Genius:

Ms. Evans argues that her tireless instruction and relentless encouragement cultivated Sarah's raw talent. From rudimentary techniques to insightful suggestions, she contends that she instilled the very foundation of the artwork. Without her guidance, Sarah would be incapable of creating the award-winning piece. The apple, she claims, is a fruit of her own meticulously planted and tended garden.

Merging Minds:

Ms. Evans believes she played a crucial role in guiding Sarah's artistic vision. From suggesting reference images, she contends that her input shaped the final form of the artwork.

The camera obscura's inclusion, Ms. Evans suggests, was facilitated by her insistence on exploring different techniques. Therefore, she argues, the piece bears her indelible mark.

Collaboration, Not Creation:

Ms. Evans insists the award-winning art was collaborative effort. She agrees Sarah executed the brushstrokes, but that it was Ms. Evans who provided the roadmap. Without her constant support and direction, the masterpiece, she argues, would remain forever unrealized.


Sarah's Defense:

Independent Expression:

Sarah asserts the artwork was a product of her own creative agency. She gladly acknowledges Ms. Evans' invaluable guidance; but she emphasizes her own original artistic contribution.

The mathematical curves, the incorporation of everyday objects, the camera obscura projection – these were her choices, artistic decisions born from her unique perspective. Ms. Evans may have provided the tools, but Sarah contends that it was she that built the masterpiece.

Transformation and Transcendence:

Sarah is adamant that Ms. Evans' influence played a formative role, not a defining one.

The apple sketch transcended mere instruction, evolving into a personal expression infused with her mathematical background. The graph paper, the compass – these seemingly extraneous elements became integral to the artwork's unique identity, born from her own creative spark.

Student and Teacher, Not Co-authors:

Sarah distinguishes their relationship as one of teacher and student, not artistic collaborators. Ms. Evans may have provided the paintbrushes, but Sarah contends that she, alone, chose the colors and painted the picture. Yes, Ms. Evans nurtured her talent, but Sarah ultimately crafted the artwork.


The Verdict:

This intricate legal tapestry leaves a single, crucial question hanging in the balance:

Who owns the "Apple of Discord"?

  • Was it Ms. Evans' guidance that birthed the masterpiece, or

  • did Sarah's independent artistic expression transcend mere instruction?

How would you judge this case?


This particular case is not real.  I suggest it as a metaphor that can readily be applied to Artificial Intelligence and AI generated output.   These issues are complex and even the case described above could go either way.

Now imagine Sarah is actually an AI program and Ms. Evans is the computer keyboardist.

Ms. Evans suggest subjects, colors, elements of design but AI, the program that basically trained itself, does all of its own combining of images and techniques, and generates the image.

Ms. Evans, a.k.a. the keyboardist’s only role in the generated work is to offer prompts and instructions.   “Hey Sarah, draw an apple and make it good enough to pass this art course.”

Sarah, a.k.a. AI combines training images, processes, styles and techniques assimilated along the way and then renders an image per instruction.  Noting by the way, AI trained itself.  The keyboardist has absolutely minimal influence on the training of AI. 

So I ask, is it appropriate for the teacher to take credit

for the student’s work?

Some AI generations are quite stunning, and some are comical, but that is beside the point.  The point is determining the creator of AI generations.

I suggest there are no creators. AI is incapable of inspiration, it can only regurgitate and generate, it cannot create.   By the same token, the keyboardist is in effect eliciting data to be rendered visually based on prompts and queries, not unlike asking a spreadsheet to create a graph.

I don’t deny there are skill sets involved to create prompts that generate attractive images, but that is a process.  Processes can be patented but not copyrighted.  Maybe some prompts are so intricate they may be worthy of a patent. 

Here's a breakdown of the key differences between copyright and patent protection, and why processes fall under the latter:

NOTE: This not intended to give legal advice.  It is just a product of a little Google/Bard research on the topic. 


Protects original expressions of ideas, such as:

  • Literary works (books, articles, poems)

  • Artistic works (paintings, sculptures, photographs)

  • Musical works (songs, compositions)

  • Dramatic works (plays, screenplays)

  • Architectural works (building designs)

  • Software code (as a literary work)

  • Does not protect ideas, methods, or processes themselves.

  • Protection arises automatically upon creation, without registration.


Protects inventions, which can include:

  • Processes (new ways of doing things)

  • Machines (new devices or tools)

  • Manufactures (new products or compositions of matter)

  • Compositions of matter (new chemical compounds or materials)

  • Requires a formal application and examination process to be granted.

  • Grants exclusive rights to make, use, sell, or import the invention for a limited time (usually 20 years).

Why Processes Need Patents:

Copyright protects the expression, not the functional concept:

Copyright only covers the specific, tangible expression of an idea, not the underlying concept or method itself. A process, by its nature, is a functional concept—it's a way of doing something, not a fixed expression.

Patents protect the functional concept:

Patents, on the other hand, are specifically designed to protect inventions, including new processes or methods. They grant exclusive rights to the inventor to prevent others from using the patented process without permission.

37 views0 comments


bottom of page