25 April 2011

Do Creatorless Creations Deserve Copyright?

Copyright has its convenient myths. The principal one is that copyright is intellectual *property*, which taps into our natural tendency to support tangible property. The other, more subtle, is that copyright is necessary to fan the flame of the creativity.

In fact copyright inheres in just about anything in fixed form, however banal and trivial - and not just to sonnets and symphonies. But even for these hopeless, quotidian artefacts, there might be some logic to offering the incentive of copyright in the hope that by accident an occasional masterpiece is produced as a result.

But what about this?

This month, Wolfram Alpha’s WolframTones, modestly subtitled “A New Kind Of Music.” (Yes, that would be the same breathtaking humility that led them to originally price the Wolfram Alpha app at a hilarious $50. Fortunately, they subsequently bought a clue.)

It is pretty cool, in a geeky sort of way: music generated by fractally complex cellular automata, in the style of your choice—classical, dance, rock/pop, hip-hop, etcetera. Every composition is unique, and can be downloaded as a ringtone.

That's interesting, but the real kicker is the following:

They lay claim to the copyright on all the generated music, mind you, raising the interesting question of what counts as “fair use”

But this isn't just about "fair use", it goes to the heart of what exactly we mean by creativity. Why should something produced algorithmically be regarded as creative? If there is any creativity, it's at the level of programming - and programs are already covered by copyright - so why is another layer of protection needed?

Nor is this a unique case, as a recent story of a "robot journalist" writing news stories indicates.

Copyright is designed to encourage creativity; but if output is produced algorithmically,there is no need to provide any incentive, since machines cannot (yet) respond to such things, and the incentive to create the program that produces the output is rewarded by copyright in the lines of code. So surely, by logic, such creatorless creations do not need copyright?

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