Illustration by TIME; reference image courtesy of Kelly McKernan

Last year, the visual artist Kelly McKernan started seeing images on Twitter that seemed to be their artwork, but weren’t. “I felt they represented unfinished sketches in my head that I hadn’t even put onto paper yet,” McKernan says. “It was really disturbing.”

McKernan, who is 37 and identifies as nonbinary, soon found out that people around the world were using their name as a keyword to prompt AI text-to-image models like Midjourney and Stable Diffusion. They could instantly create images in McKernan’s dreamy, sci-fi style. On the Midjourney Discord server alone, there was evidence of more than 11,000 images created in McKernan’s style—all without their consent or input.

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As AI image generators rose in popularity, McKernan also found that their freelance opportunities were slowly disappearing. Previously, McKernan had been able to secure several gigs a month, creating book covers for self-publishing authors or album art for local Nashville musicians. But those opportunities were drying up—and it seemed as if the revenue was instead flowing toward AI companies that were training their technology on their and other artists’ creations. “It’s also pretty wild to know that instead of hiring me for a book cover, someone can just go into a program, use my name to emulate something close enough and good enough, at a fraction of the price,” they say.

So in January, McKernan joined a class-action lawsuit, along with the artists Sarah Andersen and Karla Ortiz, against Midjourney, Stability AI, and DeviantArt. The artists allege copyright infringement and demand payment for their work. They’re far from the only ones waging legal battles on this new AI frontier. Getty Images sued Stable Diffusion for “brazen infringement.” Sarah Silverman headlined a lawsuit against ChatGPT maker OpenAI for training AI models on her book without consent, credit, or compensation. These lawsuits face a steep battle in the courts, with one judge already expressing skepticism that McKernan’s case had merit. But if they are successful, they could be crucial toward protecting a whole creative class from career extinction.

“These companies are profiting wildly off our unpaid labor,” McKernan says. “Concept artists, illustrators, graphic designers, stock artists are being downsized and let go from companies who say they’re moving to AI. This is an existential crisis.”

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