The Laboratorium (3d ser.)

A blog by James Grimmelmann

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There's No Such Thing as a Computer-Authored Work

I have a new essay draft: There’s No Such Thing as a Computer-Generated Work – And It’s a Good Thing, Too. I wrote it for the Columbia Kernochan Center’s fall symposium on Copyright Outside the Box: a day of conversations about various challenges to copyright’s ideas about authorship.

I spoke on a panel about computer-generated works, and my paper was an attempt to drive a wedge between the (real and useful) category of computer-_generated_ works and the (confusing and distracting) dream of computer-_authored_ works. There is, I think, a constant temptation to attribute authorship to computer programs as a way of avoiding hard questions about human authorship. I say temptation, because it doesn’t lead anywhere useful, and indeed once one has gone down that frustrating alley only to backtrack when it dead-ends, it’s much harder to understand the actual issues posed by authors who collaborate using computers. Here’s the abstract:

Treating computers as authors for copyright purposes is a non-solution to a non-problem. It is a non-solution because unless and until computer programs can qualify as persons in life and law, it does no practical good to call them “authors” when someone else will end up owning the copyright anyway. And it responds to a non-problem because there is nothing actually distinctive about computer-generated works.

There are five plausible ways in which computer-generated works might be considered meaningfully different from human-generated works: (1) they are embedded in digital copies, (2) people create them using computers rather than by hand, (3) programs can generate them algorithmically, (4) programmers as well as users contribute to them, and (5) programs can generate them randomly. But all of these distinctions are spurious. Old-fashioned pen-and-paper works raise all of the same issues. A close look at the creative process shows how little really changes when authors use digital tools. The problems posed for copyright by computer-generated works are not easy, but they are also not new.

As the draft states, I am eager to hear your comments. There are a few places where my discussion is underbaked; I am weighing how much more I need to say to shore up my argument against how much more I can say without getting bogged down in unnecessary detail. Any and all suggestions are welcome.

Update : Apparently, I can’t even quote myself accurately. I’ve updated the title of this post to properly reflect the title of my paper.