03 August 2009

Wolfram Alpha Does Not Understand Copyright

Remember Wolfram Alpha? That super-duper search engine - sorry, "computational knowledge engine" - that was going to change the way we looked for and found information, and also cure the common cold (OK, I made that last one up)? Seems to have disappeared without trace, no? I'm not surprised, if it misunderstands copyright as badly as this post suggests:

Try cutting and pasting from the results page. You can't, and with good reason. According to Wolfram Alpha's terms of use, its knowledge engine is "an authoritative source of information," because "in many cases the data you are shown never existed before in exactly that way until you asked for it." Therefore, "failure to properly attribute results from Wolfram Alpha is not only a violation of [its license terms], but may also constitute academic plagiarism or a violation of copyright law."

Copyright, as Wolfram seems not to understand, is a bargain between creators and their public. As an *incentive* to create, the former are given a time-limited monopoly by governments. Note that it is *not* a reward for having created: it is an incentive to create again.

Now consider Wolfram Alpha. This is essentially a computational process - remember, it's a "computational knowledge engine". So, it is simply a bunch of algorithms acting on data. Algorithms don't need incentives to create: outputting is what they do if they're useful. So copyright is completely inappropriate, just as it would be for the output of any other program processing information on its own (obviously, if that information is words fed in by a human, copyright would exist in those words because they were created by someone).

Wolfram's ridiculous claim to copyright in its results does have the virtue of providing a nice illustration of the real limits of this intellectual monopoly. For the rest, it might try finding out a bit more about copyright so that it can amend its licence accordingly - I suggest using a good search engine like Google.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter and identi.ca.

13 comments:

Crosbie Fitch said...

Wolfram has certainly been drinking the copyright koolaid, but then monopolies are very alluring.

Incidentally, copyright was never a bargain between creators and the public. It was always a privilege, a grant of a monopoly (by crown or legislature) that necessarily suspended the public's cultural liberty. The public didn't even get a referendum on the matter. Indeed, in the US copyright doesn't even have constitutional sanction, so the people can't even be said to have given congress power to enact it even then.

The suggestion that the public made such a bargain (a not uncommon notion) is the sort of historical revisionism you'd expect from Wolfram Alpha.

In any case, liberty is supposed to be inalienable. Even if the public voted to surrender it tomorrow in order to line publishers' pockets that surrender couldn't be accepted.

davidcoxon said...

Its an interesting debate, if you look at it from the point of view of whether you need to get copyright permission to show the results. Firstly the data was submitted for inclusion father than being scraped from the internet, so permission has possibly already been given for straight repetition, but the more interesting part is if data is being calculated like taking data on average vitamin content in a litre of juice and extrapolation the number of glasses of orange needed to get your daily recommended level based on daily levels from another source and avarage glass sizes from another then as i understand it you can publish that without the permission of each individual source as it constitutes new data which isn't copyrighted, as to whether you can then copyright that data yourself well thats another matter.

But it is an interesting debate and one that would take a great deal of time to resolve in the courts i'm sure.

glyn moody said...

OK, I should have specified that copyright is usually *presented* as a bargain between creators and public; I agree that we never actually made that bargain, nor is it one I subscribe to. I was just try to make it easy for Wolfram...

glyn moody said...

@david: I'm sure you're right, and the courts will love getting their teeth into it. But that's really a symptom of the malaise....

David Gerard said...

Wolfram Alpha has only sunk off the hype radar. It's good for the specific sort of queries it's set up for - scientific and statistical questions, e.g. "area of human body". Nothing could have lived up to its hype, really ...

It's good for what it was built for, not for what it wasn't.

That said, Stephen Wolfram does assume everything in the world flows from his massive ego.

phayes said...

Best Wolfram putdown ever:

"In ANKS Wolfram says that "the core of this book can be viewed as introducing a major generalization of mathematics" (p. 7). In this he is entirely mistaken, but there are at least two ways in which he has benefited mathematics: he has helped to popularize a relatively little-known mathematical area (CA theory), and he has unwittingly provided several highly instructive examples of the pitfalls of trying to dispense with mathematical rigor."

http://www.ams.org/notices/200302/fea-gray.pdf

glyn moody said...

ouch - fab.

Anonymous said...

Copyright can subsist in computer-generated works (though whether it should is another question). See the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988, s 9(3):

"In the case of a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work which is computer-generated, the author shall be taken to be the person by whom the arrangements necessary for the creation of the work are undertaken."

That doesn't leave it exactly crystal clear whether the person in question is the provider of the algorithm or the person who selects data and submits it to the algorithm - either is arguable.

glyn moody said...

That's really interesting - thanks.

I suppose what it's trying to capture is things like poetry or music generated using input from someone which is then transformed by algorithms.

Nicholas Bohm said...

Another example of a computer-generated work is a machine translation (copyright in the translation is separate from copyright in the translated work).

It seems odd to suggest that the websites providing translation services should be authors of their translations, but also odd for the submitter of text to such a site to become the author when all you need to do is copy and paste.

(I didn't mean to be anonymous - sorry.)

glyn moody said...

Yes. In fact, copyright in machine translation seems rather a good candidate for exposing the self-evident absurdity in today's copyright laws...

Gavin said...

This is a really interesting area.

Do Wolfram claim copyright in their specific codification of mathematical algorithms that operate on the data?

Also, it's quite important to remember that "you can't copyright facts"...

glyn moody said...

@Gavin: indeed - starts to get close to trying to copyright/patent maths as well....