Is Popular A.I. Photo App Lensa Stealing From Artists?

The tool went viral first for generating flattering portraits—and then for igniting ethical concerns

Lensa A.I. photo editing app
After scraping artists' work across the internet, the app can generate artistic renditions of users' selfies. Getty Images

If you’ve been on social media recently, images from the app Lensa—and its new Magic Avatars feature—have likely popped up in your feeds. The tool has been having a moment, and it’s easy to see why: For a few dollars, and a few minutes spent uploading a variety of selfies, users will receive a trove of flattering, interesting, artistic renderings of themselves to post to their feeds, all generated using artificial intelligence. Fun, shareable and harmless, right?

But since the tool’s debut, its critics have become increasingly concerned. Based on user reports, Lensa has been lightening Black skin, making users appear thinner, and generating sexualized and even semi-nude results for many women, even though they were fully clothed in all of the selfies they uploaded. Implicit bias is clearly a problem. 

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Even putting implicit bias aside, what has many artists crying foul is the concern that Lensa is engaging in “arguably the biggest art heist in history,” as the Daily Beast’s Tony Ho Tran puts it.

“[Artists’] work wasn’t taken by a team of thieves in an Ocean’s Eleven-style caper,” he writes. “Rather, it was quietly scraped from the web by a bot—and later used to train some of the most sophisticated artificial intelligence models out there.”

The conversation around A.I.’s role in art—and how it will affect artists and their livelihoods—is nothing new. A.I. is an emerging, rapidly changing field, and questions of where to draw lines in the sand are constantly up for debate.

But as some artists say on Twitter, one line is crystal clear, and Lensa has crossed it. Many of the app’s Magic Avatars, which users pay for, contain a glaring reminder that they are made possible through the work of uncompensated artists: In many images, “the mangled remains of an artist’s signature is still visible,” writes Lauryn Ipsum, an artist and graphic designer, on Twitter

To be clear, the remains of signatures seen in Lensa’s images aren’t taken from any one artist. Rather, the A.I. has gleaned, through the images across the internet it was trained on, that a scribbled bit of text often exists in one of the lower corners of a piece of art, and it has tried to replicate that. But instead of adding an air of authenticity to the portraits, the signatures are a visible reminder of who is missing out on profits: real artists, whose work was essential in teaching the tool what to create.

In addition, many artists “took issue with the fact that Lensa’s for-profit app was built with the help of a nonprofit dataset containing human-made artworks scraped from across the internet,” writes Slate’s Heather Tal Murphy. “Though Lensa does not pull from that dataset directly, it reimagines photos in styles like ‘fantasy’ by utilizing an A.I. tool built by analyzing that dataset.”

Lensa was created by Prisma Labs, which rolled out a popular feature in 2016 allowing users to change selfies into images in the style of various famous artists, like Monet or Picasso. The company has tried to assuage critics’ concerns about Magic Avatars.

“Whilst both humans and A.I. learn about artistic styles in semi-similar ways, there are some fundamental differences: A.I. is capable of rapidly analyzing and learning from large sets of data, but it does not have the same level of attention and appreciation for art as a human being,” wrote Prisma in a tweet on December 6. “The outputs can’t be described as exact replicas of any particular artwork.”

Many artists also argue that Lensa’s low cost undercuts artists’ ability to charge a fair price for similar portraits.

“[Lensa portraits] are meant to compete with our own work, using pieces and conscious decisions made by artists but purged from all that context and meaning,” illustrator Amy Stelladia tells the Daily Beast. “It just feels wrong to use people’s life work without consent, to build something that can take work opportunities away.”

Another artist, who goes by Lapine, cuts to the heart of what many creators are expressing.

“Everyone is profiting,” she tells Slate, “except the artist.”

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