Epic Games CEO says AI companies shouldn't be 'hoovering up everybody's art data'

Tim Sweeney
(Image credit: Bloomberg (Getty Images))

Epic Games recently acquired ArtStation, which among other things is one of the biggest websites that artists use for sharing their portfolios. That means it's also a target for AI companies looking for lots of categorized visual art to use as free training material for their machine learning algorithms. Although Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney hasn't taken any kind of hard stance against generative AI systems in general, he says he doesn't like that companies are ingesting people's artwork without permission.

"They're scraping the web to find people's artwork and then using it, and not getting their explicit say-so on the thing," Sweeney told PC Gamer in a call earlier this week. "And a company shouldn't do that sort of thing, right? Maybe that's in bounds for research, but when you're selling a commercial product that's used to generate commercial artwork, you shouldn't do that."

Last year, Epic created a "noAI" tag artists can apply to their ArtStation works to explicitly prohibit their use in AI training. A number of users felt the company should've applied that tag to all artwork by default rather than leaving it up to users to add it, but for now, it exists as a way to make a proactive statement.

"Choosing not to use the tag leaves copyright law to govern whether or not the artwork was fairly used," reads ArtStation's AI policy page, which was last updated in February. "AI's use and its place in copyright law is new and unsettled, leaving open many questions about copyright law's enforceability against use of work in AI. Adding the 'NoAI' tag empowers you to clarify that regardless of the state of copyright law, use of your work in AI is not permitted."

Everybody's gonna use AI in lots of ways. Most of it will be just to improve the way we do things today.

Tim Sweeney

The use of generative AI in the creation of artwork posted to ArtStation is not prohibited by the site's rules, although it has introduced a filter for users who don't want to see AI-generated images, and tells artists: "The works on your portfolio should be work that you created and we encourage you to be transparent in the process."

Image generators like Midjourney and chatbots like ChatGPT are the most public-facing, controversial applications for machine learning models right now, but it's "a much, much larger field," as Sweeney puts it, and one Epic is already involved in.

"For example, our real-world content scanning at Quixel and 3Lateral, that go around and scan real-world objects, is based really fundamentally on using AI and machine learning to produce very high quality 3D imagery from 2D photographs," Sweeney told me. "Everybody's gonna use AI in lots of ways. Most of it will be just to improve the way we do things today."

When it comes to the more "disruptive" uses of AI, like image generators, Sweeney says he intends to strike a balance between protecting creative work and letting artists engage with new technology at their will.

"At Epic, we see ourselves as being on both sides," said Sweeney. "We're creatives ourselves. We have a lot of artists in the family. We're a tool company, too. We support a lot of game developers. Some of them will use AI, some of them will hate AI, and we want to be a trustable neutral intermediary that doesn't get in the way of industry development, but also isn't going off and hoovering up everybody's art data."

As AI tech and copyright law evolve, that in-between stance may feel some strain: If scraping art for AI training were determined to be legal, for instance, the "noAI" ArtStation tag and whether or not it's applied by default would become much more significant. 

Beyond just image generators, it's becoming clear that some form of AI is going to touch everything we do on computers, whether we want it to or not. A company I sometimes point to as an interesting but less-sensational example of machine learning tech is using it to automatically rig 3D models for animation. Not long ago, Rocket League cheaters were using a godlike bot that had been trained with a machine learning algorithm. Now Discord's sticking ChatGPT in our servers.

I squeezed in this question about AI during a bigger conversation with Sweeney about the Epic Games Store and its new self-publishing tools, which you can read all about here. I also asked about Epic's exclusivity strategy going forward: The short version is that Epic Games Store exclusives aren't going away, but expect Epic to focus on fewer niche games and more big publishing deals.

Tyler Wilde
Executive Editor

Tyler grew up in Silicon Valley during the '80s and '90s, playing games like Zork and Arkanoid on early PCs. He was later captivated by Myst, SimCity, Civilization, Command & Conquer, all the shooters they call "boomer shooters" now, and PS1 classic Bushido Blade (that's right: he had Bleem!). Tyler joined PC Gamer in 2011, and today he's focused on the site's news coverage. His hobbies include amateur boxing and adding to his 1,200-plus hours in Rocket League.