Can You Copyright Pi? Lawsuit Filed Over Copyright On Pi Symphony

from the copyrighting-pi dept

You may recall that last month, we wrote about a bizarre and silly dispute concerning two different composers who had each written a song based on the number pi. The more recent song, done by Michael Blake, was set up pretty simply:

He decided the song would be in C, then assigned each note a number: C=1, D=2 and so on up through 9. Using those assignments, he played the sequence of pi: 3.14159 through 31 decimal places. He assigned numbers to chords, too, but could only play the chords every other note and still make it sound vaguely musical.

Finally, he used pi as the basis for the tempo — it’s 157 beats per minute, which is half of 314.

Another guy, named Lars Erickson, apparently came up with something similar back in 1992, and even went so far as to register a copyright on the output. Blake had posted a video on YouTube of his version, and Erickson issued a takedown. Erickson, in talking about this, admitted that he only took action because he was upset that someone removed comments about his song on the YouTube page with Blake’s song. Of course, we doubted this would ever go so far as an actual lawsuit. We were wrong. Billy Wenge-Murphy alerts us to the news that following Blake’s counternotice and YouTube’s reinstatement of the video, Erickson has sued. You can see his filing below.

I’m a bit surprised Erickson’s lawyers didn’t talk him out of this. It’s hard to see how he has anything approaching a legitimate copyright claim. After all, Judge Learned Hand famously explained that if two people come up with the same content independently, without copying one another, there is no copyright issue:

… if by some magic a man who had never known it were to compose anew Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn, he would be an “author,” and, if he copyrighted it, others might not copy that poem, though they might of course copy Keats’s.

Assuming Blake did not copy Erickson, there’s simply no issue at all. Of course, even if he did copy Erickson, there are reasonable questions as to what in Erickson’s song is actually copyrightable. Obviously, the concept of a song based on pi is not, because you can’t copyright ideas. The actual song parts based on pi are not, because Erickson does not own pi. The only thing that might qualify for a copyright could be specific creative choices that Erickson made, but it’s unclear if Blake copied any of those. And, in fact, nothing in the legal filing (embedded below) delves into that issue at all. Erickson, instead, seems to assume (falsely) that only he can make music based on pi.

The key point that Erickson seems to be relying on is the idea that he has “lost revenue” due to Blake’s work. That, of course, is silly. First of all, writing a song based on Pi cannot and is not Erickson’s exclusive idea. And, seriously, what “revenue” was he losing here? Erickson also complains about how Blake’s work “dilutes the market,” but this isn’t a trademark dispute, and I don’t see how competition in the market with a different song violates copyright law.

I can’t see this lawsuit getting very far at all, and it’s really quite amazing that Erickson went through with it. Surely, someone somewhere along the way must have explained copyright law to him, right?

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Comments on “Can You Copyright Pi? Lawsuit Filed Over Copyright On Pi Symphony”

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26 Comments
Jimr (profile) says:

The case will be open forever

As an opening argument the defense needs to recite Pi… all of Pi, or at least to the point where it repeats.

Although Erickson’s lawyers seem to be a bit opportunities they might want to valid and check the validity of Pi to it natural conclusion too. The legal bill should be as long as Pi.

Any else feel like having a pie for lunch now?

Atkray (profile) says:

“Surely, someone somewhere along the way must have explained copyright law to him, right? “

Is that even possible?

“I’m a bit surprised Erickson’s lawyers didn’t talk him out of this.”

He waved money in font of them…

What would be good but probably won’t happen is for the judge to send him and his attorney running for cover. But I fear the the Judge will play along with the charade

Anonymous Coward says:

But then when I start mentioning the possibility of these “paranoid situations” I’m accused of worrying about outliers and being paranoid and all. No, these “paranoid situations” have merit and copy’right’ law needs to address them. I haven’t seen anyone addressing any of them or even attempt to beyond saying things like “outliers” “paranoid”, etc…

AZ Libertarian says:

Transcendental stupidity

Not only does such a suit transcend common sense, the plaintiff is possibly being exploited by his attorneys, unless they are doing this pro bono. Obviously the plaintiff is irrationally angry and wants to somehow “punish” the other party by forcing them to defend a lawsuit.

This is another example of why there needs to be a clear penalty for those who tie up the legal system with frivolous suits filed to simply harass someone.

Nick Coghlan (profile) says:

Conflict of Interest

Erickson’s lawyer gets paid for his time regardless of whether the suit has merit or not, so it isn’t in the lawyer’s personal interest to talk him out of it.

Now, some lawyers actually take their professional ethics seriously and will persuade their clients not to file baseless suits, but that still leaves plenty of scope to shop around until you find a slightly less ethical one willing to profit by indulging your misplaced sense of outrage.

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