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Friday, May 14, 2004

Can You Own a Number?

I hereby copyright the number 2. No, you say? 2 is already in the public domain? Okay, how about 3? 4? 5? Okay how about:
This number possibly has never been printed before. Do I own it now? By copyright law for the next 120 years?

Turns out this integer was generated by the expression 3625 (and then subject to double precision floating point roundoff error so it's not exact). And, of course, 625 is 54. If I own the above big integer number, do I also own the expression 3625? And how about 3? 625? Subexpressions such as 54?

Every integer can be generated by an infinite number of expressions containing all of the other integers. If I own the big integer above and all ways of generating it and the relevant subexpressions and integers, I own all of the integers. If I only own the integer but not all expressions and subexpressions that could possibly generate that integer, then my copyright protection is much less useful. In that case, anybody could copy a few numbers that could then be used to generate my number.

The contents of a CD or DVD is nothing more than a number. To be sure, it's usually a very large number, with possibly billions of digits. Somebody copyrights it and owns that number and every possible subsequence of that number as long as the subsequence is large enough to be deemed unique. And they apparently own every possible expression for generating that number as well. Otherwise, Napster could have simply created three different numbers for each CD, people could have downloaded those three numbers, and Napster would have done absolutely nothing illegally. If, after downloading the three other numbers, a user regenerated the copyrighted number, they would have violated copyright law, but not Napster. But if Napster can have the three numbers (which everyone knows full well can be used to generate the original number), Napster might as well be able to copy the original number as well.

So, we have a paradox here. Either a copyright holder owns all numbers, or he has virtually no protection.

I think that copyright should apply only to the number when it is presented to a medium that converts the number into something physical. In otherwords, if I have the number that represents Madonna's latest album on my computer (and I haven't paid for it), or even on a CD, it should not be a violation of copyright unless and until I cause that number to be played so that someone can hear it. I think this is the only approach to copyright that makes sense.

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