I’ve just posted my most recent essay draft, Copyright for Literate Robots. It started out as a talk on library copying, but as I dug into the research, it turned into something … else. I realized that a simple bright-line rule explains a lot of recent fair use caselaw: copying doesn’t count when it’s done by robots. Any uses that will never be seen by human eyes are categorically non-infringing. The cases don’t say this is the rule, but it is.
Once I put it like that, I wondered how far I could follow the thread. Quite a ways, it turned out. The resulting essay looks back, to technologies like the player piano, and forward, to our increasingly automated future. Copyright’s sometimes-skeptical and sometimes-tolerant attitude toward new technologies appears in a different light when we think about its traditional attitude toward human authorship and about a future dominated by robotic reading.
Here’s the abstract:
Almost by accident, copyright has concluded that copyright law is for humans only: reading performed by computers doesn’t count as infringement. Conceptually, this makes sense: copyright’s ideal of romantic readership involves humans writing for other humans. But in an age when more and more manipulation of copyrighted works is carried out by automated processes, this split between human reading (infringement) and robotic reading (exempt) has odd consequences and creates its own tendencies toward a copyright system in which humans occupy a surprisingly peripheral place. This essay describes the shifts in fair use law that brought us here and reflects on the role of robots in copyright’s cosmology.