Updated Mar 1, 2024 - Technology

Elon Musk sues OpenAI and CEO Sam Altman over breach of contract

Elon Musk

Elon Musk at an event in Krakow, Poland on Jan. 22. Photo: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Elon Musk filed a lawsuit Thursday against OpenAI and its CEO Sam Altman, alleging they have abandoned the company's founding agreement to pursue AI research for the good of humanity rather than profit.

Why it matters: This latest twist in a long feud between the two influential figures comes as a generative AI revolution kicked off by OpenAI's ChatGPT is sweeping through the world — and many of the technology's creators continue to warn of its perils.

State of play: Musk — who co-founded OpenAI as a non-profit — alleged that he, Altman, Greg Brockman and other co-founders had agreed the company would be an open-source nonprofit seeking to develop artificial intelligence “for the benefit of humanity.”

  • The lawsuit noted that Altman, Brockman and OpenAI, Inc “reaffirmed” the founding agreement with Musk on “multiple occasions.”
  • Yet "in 2023, Defendants Mr. Altman, Mr. Brockman, and OpenAI set the Founding Agreement aflame," the lawsuit stated.

Friction point: OpenAI released its GPT-4 model last year. Musk's lawsuit alleges its internal design is shrouded in secrecy driven by "commercial considerations."

  • "OpenAI Inc. has been transformed into a closed-source de facto subsidiary of the largest technology company in the world: Microsoft," the lawsuit stated.
  • OpenAI is "not just developing but is actually refining" artificial intelligence technology "to maximize profits for Microsoft," it added.
  • OpenAI did not immediately respond Friday to a request from Axios seeking comment on Musk's lawsuit.

Context: Musk has founded his own AI startup, X.ai, as a for-profit entity.

  • Its chatbot, Grok, specializes in a "free speech" oriented approach, in contrast to other products — including OpenAI's — that aim to limit harmful speech and bias.
  • The lawsuit follows an epic boardroom drama at OpenAI last November, when the company's directors fired Altman, saying they could no longer trust him. Altman was restored as CEO after employees rebelled.

Our thought bubble, via Axios' managing editor of tech Scott Rosenberg: The breach of contract suit, filed in a California state court, lets Musk spotlight OpenAI's complex and still fraught evolution from a tiny non-profit organization to the standard-bearer of a tech revolution with billions, or even trillions, at stake.

Read the lawsuit in full, via DocumentCloud:

Editor's note: This story was updated with additional context.

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