Judge Chooses Pi Day To Reject Lawsuit Over Attempt To Copyright Pi As A Song

from the can't-copyright-facts dept

Last year, we wrote about a dispute between two guys who had both recorded songs based on the number pi. A guy named Lars Erickson had recorded The Pi Symphony back in 1992 and registered a copyright on the output. It was based on assigning notes to the numbers 0 to 9, then playing them according to the sequence of pi. On March 14th, 2011 — also known as Pi Day, since the 3/14 date matches the 3.14 beginning of pi — musician Michael Blake came up with a similar idea. According to NPR’s report on the song:

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. He played this part on several instruments, as you can see in the video above, and layered them to make a song. The result isn’t exactly catchy, but it’s certainly melodic.

Apparently Erickson got upset about this — though he admits he was mainly upset that his own comments on the YouTube video of Blake’s song were deleted. So he filed a lawsuit claiming copyright infringement.

Blake successfully had the lawsuit transferred from Nebraska to Portland, Oregon, and has now succeeded in having the case dismissed, with the ruling itself issued on March 14 — Pi Day once again. The ruling is embedded below, and it’s a worthwhile read, highlighting the limitations of copyright. It actually goes into a fairly detailed description of the separation between ideas and expression, as well as questions about “substantial similarity.” The conclusion:

The primary similarity between Pi Symphony and “What Pi Sounds Like” is the musical pattern formed by transposing the digits of pi to a set of musical notes. That pattern is not protected by Mr. Erickson’s copyright for Pi Symphony. Pi is a non-copyrightable fact, and the transcription of pi to music is a non-copyrightable idea. The resulting pattern of notes is an expression that merges with the non-copyrightable idea of putting pi to music: assigning digits to musical notes and playing those notes in the sequence of pi is an idea that can only be expressed in a finite number of ways. This does not mean that Mr. Erickson’s copyright is invalid, only that Mr. Erickson may not use his copyright to stop others from employing this particular pattern of musical notes.

What may be protected by copyright is the combination of that pattern with other musical elements: the choice of scale, rhythm, harmony, and embellishments or variation, for example…. Pi Symphony and “What Pi Sounds Like” employ different rhythms, different phrasing, different harmonies, and different tempos. The court does not agree with Mr. Erickson that the melodies of Pi Symphony and “What Pi Sounds Like” are sufficiently similar in their cadence or tempo to raise a question of substantial similarity. If there are additional similarities that relate to protectable elements of Mr. Erickson’s musical work, those similarities are minor and scattered throughout the work. For one work to be substantially similar to another, more than incidental and occasional similarities are required….

Thus, after the similarities based on unprotected elements of Pi Symphony are set aside, very few–if any–similarities remain. Mr. Erickson’s copyright is therefore “thin” and protects his work only from virtually identical copying…

The court also dismisses Erickson’s claim of “unfair competition,” noting that what appeared to be straight up jealousy is no reason for a legal claim:

Copyright protects against the copying of original elements of an author’s work. It does not protect the copyright holder’s goodwill, market status, or artistic success. It does not even protect the author’s hard work in being the first to create a compilation of information otherwise available in the public domain. See Feist, 499 U.S. at 359-360 (rejecting the “sweat of the brow” theory of copyright protection). These limitations derive from the constitutional basis of copyright, which is “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” U.S. Const. art. 1, sec. 8, cl. 8. Copyright is thus intended to protect the original work of authors without granting monopolies over facts or ideas that would hinder further progress…. Given statutory law, the Constitution, and Supreme Court precedent, Mr. Erickson cannot use his copyright to stop Mr. Blake from employing the same idea—the transcription of the digits of pi to musical notes.

Nice to see the court lay out the reasoning so clearly. It’s unclear if the court recognized the symbolic nature of issuing the ruling on Pi Day, but either way, it was a nice move.

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Comments on “Judge Chooses Pi Day To Reject Lawsuit Over Attempt To Copyright Pi As A Song”

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TtfnJohn (profile) says:

Re: My favorite quote from the decision...

I don’t know American law well enough to say that it’s precedent setting in or outside of Oregon but it certainly has the look of something future judges can take into account in the future because of the clarity of the statement and that, as I read it, it makes that statement in the context of the US Constitution.

If it does become precedent I can see it being used in other countries that follow the Statue of Anne model of copyright in that it clarifies, beyond doubt I’d say, what copyright does and does not protect in the marketplace.

Robert Doyle (profile) says:

“A guy named Lars Erickson had recorded The Pi Symphony back in 1992 and registered a copyright on the output. It was based on assigning notes to the numbers 0 to 9, then playing them according to the sequence of pi.”

Why is all that I can think of is…

This is the song that never ends, yes it goes on and on my friends, some people, started singing it not knowing what it was, and they’ll continue singing it forever just because…
This is the song that never ends…

wvhillbilly (profile) says:

Patent rights for copyright?

Seems to me like this guy is trying to claim patent rights for a copyright. You can patent ideas, you can’t copyright them.

This reminds me of the silly fight over two pictures by different photographers of a red bus on a B & W background. The only similarity between the two pictures was the red bus on a monochrome background, otherwise the two were quite dissimilar, even being taken in different locations. Copyright only protects against verbatim copying of protected material, in part or in whole, one’s expression of an idea. It does not protect against someone else using an idea you came up with first.

Claiming rights on a copyrighted work not granted by copyright law is copyright abuse, which is in itself a crime.

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