AI image generator Midjourney has halted free trials of its service, blaming a sudden influx of new users. Midjourney CEO and founder David Holz announced the change on Tuesday, originally citing “extraordinary demand and trial abuse” in a message on Discord (this announcement was spotted first by The Washington Post). In an email to The Verge, Holz stated that the pause is “because of massive amounts of people making throwaway accounts to get free images.”
“We think the culprit was probably a viral how-to video in china,” said Holz over email. “This happened at the same time as a temporary gpu shortage. The two things came together and it was bringing down the service for paid users.”
Given Holz’s reference to “abuse,” it was originally thought that the pause was linked to a spate of recent viral images created using Midjourney, including fabricated images of Donald Trump being arrested and the pope wearing a stylish jacket, which some mistook for real photographs. However, Holz characterized earlier reports as a “misunderstanding” and notes that the free trial of Midjourney never included access to the latest version of Midjourney, version 5, that creates the most realistic images and which is thought to have been used for these viral pictures.
Version 5 of Midjourney significantly improved the quality of images depicting people. For example, misshapen hands that were previously a hallmark of AI-generated images are now less of a challenge. Lighting and fabric are also more realistic, and the system is capable of generating images of countless celebrities and public figures.
These improvements have seemingly led to a number of Midjourney images going viral in recent weeks. They include not only fake pictures of Trump’s arrest and the pope looking fashionable but also French President Emmanuel Macron walking through the ongoing protests in Paris and Elon Musk holding hands with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Midjourney’s response to the politically sensitive escalating threat from fake images has so far been piecemeal, without any significant overhaul of its moderation policies. Midjourney’s content restrictions are more permissive than some rival services (like OpenAI’s DALL-E) but more restrictive than others (i.e., Stable Diffusion).
“Moderation is hard and we’ll be shipping improved systems soon. We’re taking lots of feedback and ideas from experts and the community and are trying to be really thoughtful,” Holz told The Verge.
Midjourney maintains a list of banned words “related to topics in different countries based on complaints from users in those countries,” as per a message from Holz last October. But it doesn’t share a complete version of this list to minimize “drama.” As Holz said last year, “Almost no one ever notices [the ban list] unless they’re specially trying to create drama which is against our rules in tos [terms of service] ‘don’t use our tools to create drama.’”
But the company has expanded this list as its fakes have gone viral, recently banning the term “arrested,” for example. This was seemingly in response to a popular Twitter thread of Midjourney images depicting Trump being arrested that were created by investigative journalist Eliot Higgins. Higgins says he was subsequently banned from using Midjourney.
Such restrictions are easy to bypass, though. For example, in The Verge’s tests, we were unable to generate images with the prompt “Donald Trump being arrested” but could create identical output with the prompt “Donald Trump in handcuffs surrounded by police.” (As illustrated by the image at the top of the story.)
At the time of writing, Midjourney is still not allowing free users to generate images, though this may change in the future. “We’re still trying to figure out how to bring free trials back, we tried to require an active email but that wasn’t enough so we’re back to the drawing board,” said Holz.
Correction March 30th, 5:02PM ET: An earlier version of this story suggested that Midjourney halted free trials of its service in reaction to a spate of viral deepfake images. CEO David Holz says the reason was an influx of new users and notes that the most advanced version of Midjourney, version 5, has never been available to free trial users. We regret the error.