Can You Copyright Algorithmic Output?

from the do-computers-need-incentive-to-create? dept

A bunch of folks have been sending in Neil McAllister’s writeup at InfoWorld about how Wolfram Alpha, the incredibly overhyped “knowledge engine” (that, in my experience doesn’t work very well) is claiming copyright on all of its output, which raises questions about what would happen if others did the same thing:

In other words, Wolfram Research is claiming that each page of results returned by the Wolfram Alpha engine is a unique, copyrightable work, like a report or term paper. That makes Wolfram Alpha different not just from classic search engines, but from most software. While software companies routinely retain sole ownership of their software and license it to users, Wolfram Research has taken the additional step of claiming ownership of the output of the software itself. It’s a bold assertion, and one that could have significant ramifications for the software industry as a whole.

It really depends on the output, but in many cases I have trouble believing the output really is copyrightable. After all, you cannot copyright facts and (in the US, at least) you can’t copyright a collection of facts, either. The article doesn’t discuss that, and seems to assume that the output may be copyrightable, but I would think that it would need to be significantly more unique and have additional creativity before it could be covered (and then, only the unique parts would be covered). Still, there may be a legal gray area, as McAllister notes:

Suppose you have an Excel spreadsheet full of numbers that you input, but then you ask Excel to generate a series of complex graphs based on rules, formulae, and templates designed by Microsoft. Or what about pivot tables? What about mash-ups or tools like Mozilla Jetpack? If unique presentations based on software-based manipulation of mundane data are copyrightable, who retains what rights to the resulting works?

I’m guessing that the graphs still wouldn’t be copyrightable, as they’d really just be the same collection of data, but you could see a mathematically illiterate court finding otherwise…

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Comments on “Can You Copyright Algorithmic Output?”

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Ven says:

Re: Compilers

That is exactly the case, even F/OSS compilers like GCC come with a special exemption that the object code they produce is not covered by the copyright of the compiler it self.

Although this is a technical issue, since to compile a C/C++ program the compiler must add a preamble that was written by the authors of the compiler, resulting in all output of the compiler being a derivative work of the compiler it self to some small degree.

pilgrim (profile) says:

keeping their options open

Browsing the TOS, it looks as though Wolfram is just trying to keep its options open — leaving sufficient wiggle room for some copyright-based claim int he future, while scaring the handful of users who might actually read this thing into providing attribution to Wolfram (and thus free advertising).

Sure, there may be copyrightable elements of the output of a computer program. The most obvious is something like MS Word — you type (creative) stuff in, and it puts words on a screen/page. That’s “output,” and it’s copyrightable subject matter. Of course, the creative elements are words typed in by the user; generally, the display elements the software uses aren’t the creative, copyrightable elements.
In many (if not most) cases, this is how Alpha seems to work — you put in a query, and it spits back some data relating to your query. The creative element of your search is largely what you put in, not what you got back.

Wolfram may be thinking (or to put it more precisely, the authors of Alpha’s TOS may be thinking) that its creative choices in deciding how to combine/compare the data inputs are copyrightable. I, like Mike, don’t think that’s likely. But there’s plenty of caselaw out there finding that the output of computer programs is copyrightable (a number of cases involving Blizzard come to mind). The courts in these cases may not have been sloppy, they may not have understood copyright or technology as well as they should have (and in some cases, that’s definitely true), but regardless of whether that’s true, there is authority out there that future courts might rely on to find Alpha’s output copyrightable.

By the way, another angle here is that Wolfram seems to be more or less asserting that a condition of use of the site is that users must treat the output as copyrightable, or rather, as something in which Wolfram retains attribution rights. Under that theory, a user who subsequently fails to give Alpha adequate attribution has violated the TOS, and Wolfram could then say that the user’s use of the site (i.e. downloading pages into a browser cache, or copying/cutting/pasting data) is some sort of infringement, as its a use not authorized by the license. (And yes – to answer the obvious, a purported contractual violation of this sort is by no means automatically a copyright violation, but courts have been split on this issue as well, so as the TOS says, it “may” constitute a violation of copyright law, even if it probably wouldn’t.)

Anyway, those are theories about what the heck WOlfram might be thinking. In general, they probably aren’t thinking that hard on this. Their lawyers are drafting the TOS as broadly as possible so as not to foreclose any legal claim, now known or later invented, they might want to make down the road.

Shaun W says:

You probably can copyright it...

If not now then in the near future almost certainly.

The way copyright laws seem to be going is that they are getting more and more strict along with more and more people breaking (file sharing etc) or subverting (open source etc) them. It seems likely that they will go the same way as lese majeste and blasphemy laws have in the civilized world – with most people unaware they exist (if they do) until someone gets sued over them in a high profile way, at which point they are quickly repealed.

I really hope I’m wrong here, and just being cynical, but with the current climate regarding cooperate political donations the following quote seems quite appropriate:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” – Upton Sinclair

Strofcon says:

Not sure the copyright would actually lie where they want it...

Would the copyright really end up with, for instance, Microsoft?

Or with the developer of their compiler?

Or with the engineer that implemented the assembly code for the hardware the code was written and compiled with?

You’d almost work yourself backwards to the point of having to copyright the very idea of electron flows causing variable behaviors in electronic circuits… *sigh*

Anonymous Coward says:

can’t recall the case name off the top of my head, but no, the output is not copyrightable. the trial court said yes, but it was overturned on appeal because the company claiming copyright was basically arguing they own a specific rating number when cross referenced to some entity. the notion that one could own facts and quantified opinions as short as a few digits was absurd.

but wolfram’s output on some articles is pretty extensive and i think the keyword from their TOS is “MAY”. the problem here is you have sensationalist writers hyping wolfram’s limited case scenario and extrapolating it to every conceivable and absurd case that wolfram never even claims.

i’ve written a number of software AI programs, and yes.

JJ says:

Of course they can copyright it

It has never been possible (in the US) to copyright data, but a particular presentation of that data has always been protected.

The data that you get from Wolfram Alpha, you should clearly be allowed to use however you want… but the graphs and tables themselves, while presenting dynamic data, were quite certainly designed by an artist or designer, with a great deal of attention payed to aesthetics and usability, and these should be subject to the same protections as any static graph printed in a static publication.

There’s nothing to worry about unless they try to claim that you can’t take that data and make your own graphs or tables from it.

Sandra Day O'Connor says:

Read my Feist opinion

Mike, you are incorrect when you write “(in the US, at least) you can’t copyright a collection of facts”. From Wikipedia:

In regard to collections of facts, O’Connor states that copyright can only apply to the creative aspects of collection: the creative choice of what data to include or exclude, the order and style in which the information is presented, etc., but not on the information itself.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Read my Feist opinion

Mike, you are incorrect when you write “(in the US, at least) you can’t copyright a collection of facts”.

Only to certain aspects of it, not the whole work.

In regard to collections of facts, O’Connor states that copyright can only apply to the creative aspects of collection

Exactly. For example, one could copyright the creative look and style of a telephone book (including the ads in it), but not the facts in it.

Sandra Day O'Connor says:

Read my Feist opinion

Mike, you are incorrect when you write “(in the US, at least) you can’t copyright a collection of facts”. From Wikipedia:

In regard to collections of facts, O’Connor states that copyright can only apply to the creative aspects of collection: the creative choice of what data to include or exclude, the order and style in which the information is presented, etc., but not on the information itself.

Geo (user link) says:

computers already writing books and getting patents for inventions

“Philip M. Parker, the chaired professor of management science at Insead (a business school with campuses in Fontainebleau, France, and Singapore), has developed computer algorithms that collect publicly available information on a subject — broad or obscure — and, aided by his 60 to 70 computers and six or seven programmers, he turns the results into books in a range of genres, many of them in the range of 150 pages and printed only when a customer buys one.

another one:

A Romance Novel With Byte – Author Teams Ups With Computer to Write Book in Steamy Style of Jacqueline Susann

August 11, 1993

and they invent too:

The Genie in the Machine: How Computer-Automated Inventing is Revolutionizing Law and Business

Anonymous Coward says:


It seems to me that the person who would own the copyright would be the person who caused the engine to output a certain result. In other words, the person inputting the question. Like if a person uses any other tool (for example a word processor or spreadsheet or presentation program) to create a document, then the person using the tool would have the copyright, not the person who made the tool.

This also reminds me of the old question of whether a musical instrument maker should share in the copyright of any music recorded from that instrument. So far I think the courts have said no.

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