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The race to lead A.I. has become a desperate hunt for the digital data needed to advance the technology. To obtain that data, tech companies including OpenAI, Google and Meta have cut corners, ignored corporate policies and debated bending the law, according to an examination by The New York Times.

At Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, managers, lawyers and engineers last year discussed buying the publishing house Simon & Schuster to procure long works, according to recordings of internal meetings obtained by The Times. They also conferred on gathering copyrighted data from across the internet, even if that meant facing lawsuits. Negotiating licenses with publishers, artists, musicians and the news industry would take too long, they said.

Like OpenAI, Google transcribed YouTube videos to harvest text for its A.I. models, five people with knowledge of the company’s practices said. That potentially violated the copyrights to the videos, which belong to their creators.

Last year, Google also broadened its terms of service. One motivation for the change, according to members of the company’s privacy team and an internal message viewed by The Times, was to allow Google to be able to tap publicly available Google Docs, restaurant reviews on Google Maps and other online material for more of its A.I. products.

The companies’ actions illustrate how online information — news stories, fictional works, message board posts, Wikipedia articles, computer programs, photos, podcasts and movie clips — has increasingly become the lifeblood of the booming A.I. industry. Creating innovative systems depends on having enough data to teach the technologies to instantly produce text, images, sounds and videos that resemble what a human creates.

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