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Can you make money by selling AI-generated images?

Computer-generated artwork is one of the latest trends. Find out if you can actually make money by selling your AI-generated images.

Not too long ago people were super hyped by the possibility of selling images as NFT and now it seems like we are moving to the next thing already: AI-generated artwork.

Maybe you have seen some of those hyperrealistic images on Instagram, or you have just found out about them on Youtube. No matter how you discovered this world I’m sure we all had the same reaction: this is cool and scary at the same time.

Cool because, let’s face it, those images can be quite amazing. But if you stop for a while and consider the implications of this, well it seems like a dystopian world where AI will finally take over the world is one step closer. On top of that, there are some quite serious problems for human artists, photographers, and graphic designers. It’s not difficult to imagine a day where most of these people will be replaced by an input box in a browser…

But if you are reading this article, you are not here to consider some philosophical arguments or to ponder about human extinction: you want to know if you can use the damn thing to make some money. So, let’s talk about it.

Keep in mind that all the images in this article have been generated by some AI and no bot was harmed in the making of them.

Which are the most popular AI image generator?

Images generated by Midjourney users

The way these systems work, from a user’s perspective, is very simple: you have an input box where you can type whatever it is you want the AI to create. Some systems allow you to add some parameters to give you more control over how the final results are achieved, while others leave more control to the AI.

This market is constantly evolving and new players can emerge any day, but at the time of writing this article, the two major companies are Dall-e 2 and Midjourney. There are of course other companies such as DreamStudio and Stability and most likely others that I’m not aware of.

Some of them, such as Dall-e 2, require an invitation while others like Midjourney are free to use immediately.

One thing they all have in common is that they allow users to try it for free and have a cap on the number and size of images that can be generated. After you reach the cap, you’ll have to pay a monthly fee.

My favorite so far, in terms of results, is Midjourney although I really dislike the fact that it works on Discord. But it has an incredible documentation page on Github, definitely worth checking it out. In terms of quality, at the moment, it’s probably the winner.

Dall-e 2 has a nice interface but seems to be quite basic regarding the customization options. It does however have an amazing feature: it allows you to upload an image, erase an area of it using a brush, then tell the computer what should go in that space, and it’ll paint it in for you.

DreamStudio seems to have a nice balance between ease of use and customization options but it’s still in beta and the results, compared to Midjourney, are not that great.

I suggest you try as many as you can to really get a sense of what you can do and how much you enjoy the different systems.

Can I legally sell my AI-generated images and artwork?

Cute Cthulu

Let’s get to the point. Here’s where things become a bit complex. There are actually three things to consider:

  • What does the law say?
  • What do these companies that provide AI bots say?
  • Where can you sell your art?

Let me try to address each of these points so that we understand if it’s possible to sell your images. By the way, if you simply want to sell your photographs (taken by you) check out my complete guide to selling stock images and stock footage.

What does the law say?

Image generated by Midjourney user

According to the U.S. Copyright Office Rules, A.I. Art Can’t Be Copyrighted. You can read the full article here, but the TL;dr is that “an image generated through artificial intelligence lacks the “human authorship” necessary for protection”.

The article talks about how the U.S. Copyright Office (USCO) rejected a copyright request for an AI-generated work of art due to that reason. In his appeal, the artist argued that the USCO has proven unwilling to “depart from a century of copyright jurisprudence.”

I’m no legal expert, so I might be completely wrong, but from my understanding, this doesn’t mean that legally I’m not allowed to sell my AI-generated art. It simply means that I can’t enforce the copyright, at least until the law will be changed (and I’m sure it will happen soon enough). It’s also important to remember that this only applies to the US. So every country might technically have different copyright laws.

What do these companies that provide AI bots say?

Image generated by Midjourney user

Let’s say the law doesn’t actually forbid selling AI images, can I actually do it? Do these companies actually allow me to sell the images created through their AI systems?

Well, the answer is YES, you can. There are some restrictions of course, but generally speaking the most popular AI generators do allow commercial rights.

This is taken straight from Dall-e 2 disclaimer page:

Starting today, users get full usage rights to commercialize the images they create with DALL·E, including the right to reprint, sell, and merchandise. This includes images they generated during the research preview.

Users have told us that they are planning to use DALL·E images for commercial projects, like illustrations for children’s books, art for newsletters, concept art and characters for games, moodboards for design consulting, and storyboards for movies.

DALL·E

This is taken from Midjourney. Basically, you are NOT the copyright owner (Midjourney is) and you grant them a non-exclusive license:

By using the Services, you grant to Midjourney, its successors, and assigns a perpetual, worldwide, non-exclusive, sublicensable no-charge, royalty-free, irrevocable copyright license to reproduce, prepare Derivative Works of, publicly display, publicly perform, sublicense, and distribute text, and image prompts you input into the Services, or Assets produced by the service at your direction. This license survives termination of this Agreement by any party, for any reason.

Subject to the above license, you own all Assets you create with the Services.This does not apply if you…are NOT a Paid Member

Midjourney

One thing to keep in mind with Midjourney is that, unless you pay an additional fee, all of your images are public (including the prompt you used), and anyone can see and use them without your knowledge. This doesn’t happen with other AI generators.

Where can you sell your art?

Now that we have clarified the two previous points let’s talk about where you can actually sell these images.

For some people, this means licensing the content through stock photography agencies. Others chose to sell some merchandise on Etsy or similar websites. Some other people sell physical paintings or canvases. Most stock agencies and merchandise websites don’t have too many restrictions in terms of what kind of content you can upload. They are happy as long as you bring them money.

There are some exceptions though, such as high-quality stock photo agencies (like Arcangel). These agencies claim that they value human art more than AI-generated one, and while I believe this is partially true, I think the problem is actually strictly legal. Generally, these types of agencies require an exclusive license but some of these AI generators, like Midjourney, grant the creators a non-exclusive license. So it becomes a legal nightmare to actually check which AI was used to generate a specific image.

Another problem that could prevent you from licensing the content through regular stock photography agencies is technical: these AI images are generated at a very low resolution. At the moment Dall-e 2 creates images that are 1024X1024px and, as far as I can tell, Midjourney creates images that are about 2048px on the long side. These resolutions are not big enough to be accepted by most agencies. Yes, you can try to upscale the image but you’ll lose quality. I believe this is only a temporary problem though, and soon enough we’ll see the option of generating bigger files (most likely in exchange for more money).

As I mentioned earlier, on Dall-e 2 there is a function that allows you to fill the empty spaces with some AI-generated content and this means that you can enlarge the canvas and the final image will be bigger than 1024px. The results though are usually not that good compared to the regularly generated images.

To conclude remember that it’s also possible to combine another “new” technology: NFT. There is nothing preventing you from minting your AI-generated images as NFT. If you want to find out more about how to sell your images as NFT check out my guide.

This topic has also been discussed by fellow microstock photographer Alex, who runs the blog Brutallyhonestmicrostock.com. You can check his experience using Dall-e 2 in this article. Definitely worth the reading.

Be mindful of market saturation

Images generated by Midjourney users

Let’s face it: this whole type-a-sentence-and-create-some-amazing-images thing is very cool. When I first saw the potential of the AI generator I was stunned. I couldn’t believe my eyes. We know about AI since Hollywood has been talking about it for ages, but to be actually able to see it in action and try it in person, well that is really something else.

My second thought of course was, how can I monetize this stuff? If you are reading this article you are thinking exactly the same thing, and that’s what every other person who has discovered this niche is doing right now. Here you can see some of the amazing results from people who are using Midjourney so that you have an idea about the competition you’ll face.

The ease of use means that soon there’ll be an unlimited supply of sci-fi hyper-realistic images and people will upload everywhere trying to make a few bucks. Don’t get me wrong, getting good results is not as easy as it seems, but it definitely takes way less effort than becoming a real artist.

So, as it’s often the case, first movers will have the biggest advantage. But even if you discovered this market a bit late, don’t get discouraged: there will always be room for creative and talented people. I can imagine already a few job openings, in the not-so-distant future, for “AI senior prompt experts” or maybe a Fiverr service that offers a “database of AI prompt presets.

So while it’s possible to earn something by selling AI-generated images, don’t make the mistake of thinking that it’s easy money. Some people will become very successful AI artists, others will create mediocre content, and others will give up soon enough. As always, try to experiment and have fun at the same time. The potential of this new technology is truly incredible and I believe we have not even started.

Here you can find the list of the best stock photo agencies.

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