Copyright Question: Does David Bowie Get The Copyright On Computer Generated Lyrics?

from the have-fun-with-this-one,-law-profs dept

There have been a number of copyright-related discussions spurred by the unfortunate passing of David Bowie, but here’s one more that might make for an interesting law school exam. Matthew Braga, over at Vice’s Motherboard, has a really wonderful story about how Bowie used a lyric writing word randomizer app called Verbasizer in writing his album Outside in the mid-1990s. He includes this clip from a documentary about it:

In short, it’s a digitized version of the famed “cut up technique” that has been used by creators for decades. Bowie had previously been known to use a more traditional method of literally cutting up pieces of words on paper. But in the 90s he teamed up with Ty Roberts, who later went on to found Gracenote, to create a software version that would randomize words to create possible lyrics.

Roberts described Bowie as taking multiple word sources, from the newspaper to hand-written words, cutting them up, throwing them into a hat and then arranging the fragments on pieces of paper. He’d then cross out material that didn’t fit to create lines of lyrics.

Roberts suggested he could create software for Bowie to speed up the process and did so for use on a Mac laptop. The app was called the Verbasizer and you can see it in use by Bowie in the video above in which he refers to a “friend” aka Ty Roberts. It allowed for different input methods including simply typing in words and then arranged them in columns which could be restricted to nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. Each column could be weighted and have multiple words if desired. With a push of a button lyrics would then be created.

The Verbasizer was used in the creation of “Outside” which employed additional creative techniques for bypassing one’s usual methods of artmaking that fall into patterns that are otherwise difficult to avoid. Roberts had the unique experience of observing Bowie’s working methods as he went from the computer to the mic with new material sometimes in just a minute.

That’s kind of cool… but it leads to a bit of a copyright question. We’ve already been discussing how copyright doesn’t apply to works created by animals, but a much bigger fight concerns whether or not it applies to works created by computers. The official answer is no — as with the monkey situation, copyright requires a human author. But given the rise in computer-generated content — text, music, videos and more — it’s one that is going to show up in court.

So, then, are Bowie’s lyrics copyrightable at all? It’s not clear that enough is really known to make that call entirely. On the “yes, copyrightable” side of the argument, you can claim that Bowie likely fed in the original texts used for the cut ups, giving some element of human authorship. And, also, he was responsible for finally choosing which algorithmicly generated lyrics to actually use. Finally, in at least some interviews, Bowie admits that the cut up technique was often most useful in inspiring him, rather than necessarily giving him the final lyrics. That’s probably enough to say he has the copyright on those lyrics. But, at the very least, it does seem open to someone challenging that. And these issues are only going to become a bigger issue as more and more works are generated by computers, with less and less human input at all. And, once again, Bowie appears to have been on the cutting edge…

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Comments on “Copyright Question: Does David Bowie Get The Copyright On Computer Generated Lyrics?”

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Anonymous Coward says:

It’s copyrightable, I think. He was the one who controlled the input, and made the decisions on what was acceptable output. And, importantly, he edited it.

Perhaps it’s like carving a pumpkin. You can’t copyright a pumpkin, because there’s no human author (even if you planted it.) But once you take a knife to it, you can absolutely copyright the result if it’s distinctive enough.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

You might be right but, the pumpkin won’t last very long and it would be hard to take to court as evidence, even the next day. One could take a picture of it, and the picture would be copyrightable in its own sense, but the pumpkin itself is a fixed medium with a very short shelf life.

Think of trying to copyright an ice carving. One single 300 lb block of ice, after carving, might be good for 3 hours or so, and it would change form many times, or rather continuously throughout that period. Which form gets the copyright? The starting point when you take it out of the freezer and put it on display?

Even keeping it in a freezer for life of the artist plus 70 years (think of that electric bill) that carving is going to change form. Refrigerators are also dehumidifiers and that would take water out of the ice in the ice carving, changing its form.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

“but the pumpkin itself is a fixed medium with a very short shelf life. “

The only way that matters is if it can be argued that it was never really fixed and thus couldn’t be copyrighted. Destruction of an object does not equal destruction of its copyright. And since the comparison is to song lyrics, it doesn’t really apply to the analogy. Can we just suppose that we’ve used some sort of preservative?

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Of course, you can presume anything you wish. After 30 some years of making vegetable and ice carvings professionally I have never found or heard of a preservative that does much in the long run, and I have tried several including the traditional gelatin and antioxidants (nothing helps the ice except cold). The end results will last the length of the banquet, but not much longer. I was responding to the very poor analogy of copyrighting a pumpkin carving.

You cannot copyright paint, but you can copyright a painting. Maybe you could copyright a pumpkin carving, but you would be better off using the pumpkin to make a vegetable dye that you then make a painting with. That you may be able to preserve longer.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Did you read my comment last week? Because I did the “you can’t copyright a pumpkin” thing to death already 😀

Eh, probably.

Can I claim copyright?

Sure thing. Luckily for me you haven’t registered it, and it’s going to be awfully hard for you to prove damages, and the copyright is only on your actual statement and not on the general idea of a copyrighted pumpkin.

You are being watched (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I would argue that at one point, copyright was an appropriate thing to have. It ensured that a content creator would be able to safely make money from their work for a reasonable amount of time without worry that someone else would simply steal the work and slap their name on it and not suffer repercussions.

The problem comes from being able (or forced to now-a-days to get anywhere; unless you turn to the internet) to transfer ownership of copyright to a corporation which is capable of making money from a content creator’s work, better. Once they have seen that money roll in, they are reluctant to lose the cash cow they have on hand, so continue to make copyright worse and worse just to squeeze an extra buck from folks.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I would argue that at one point, copyright was an appropriate thing to have. It ensured that a content creator would be able to safely make money from their work for a reasonable amount of time without worry that someone else would simply steal the work and slap their name on it and not suffer repercussions.

Plagiarism has always been frowned on, and is outside the control of copying. Nobody has successfully claimed the works of Homer, Aristotle, or any other ancient writer, despite them being without copyright protection for thousands of years. Authorship of folk tales and tunes is often attributed to Anon. or Trad. (Anonymous or Traditional) when the author is not known, rather than being claimed by someone who is collecting folklore etc.
If you look at history, the real purpose of copyright was to protect the investment in time and materials of printers producing a book, or rather thousands of copies before they could sell one. Before printing there was no copyright, and for the first several hundred years of printing, copyright was a license from an authority to a printer to say that the work was approved for circulation, that is it was a censorship tool.
Copyright has never been a driver for creative processes, but rather a tool of industrial control; and thought to be an enabler of corporate profits, by corporate owner.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“Nobody has successfully claimed the works of Homer, Aristotle, or any other ancient writer, despite them being without copyright protection for thousands of years.”

Yes, but only because the original author is well known and the original texts available for comparison. Given that the works are available for re-writing in different ways and for any form of media, why would someone try to pretend they wrote the original when they clearly could not have done so?

This is not true for a new author having his work plagiarised, or even copied wholesale and published under someone else’s name. The rules that protect a corporation’s profits are actually also useful for protecting the independent in the early stages.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

You are conflating several issues, attribution of a work, along with the creation of a work, which is distinct from the production and distribution of copies. For most of human history creators had no rights to control copying, and almost no legal rights of attribution, yet they still created new works. Prior to the adoption of the printing press, whoever who wanted a copy either invested the time to make their own copy, or paid a scribe to do it for them. None of this money went to the original author, unless they were the scribe who made the copy. Also there are very few if any competing claims to the authorship of works, even when they were new translations to (re-)introduce a work to a culture.
It is also worth noting that so long as they were protected from direct competition, printer were quite happy to pay authors for publishable works, as after all that was what made their printing presses valuable.
A further point well worth considering is that the majority of creators of new works do not make a living from doing so, as it takes the good fortune of attracting a large fan base to be able to make a living from creating new works. Just look around the Internet to see the amount of works being produces as hobby projects by enthusiastic amateurs, or as a side line to other money making activities.

Anonymous Coward says:

There have been numerous articles on Techdirt supporting the idea that taking an abstract idea (or some common process) and doing it on a computer doesn’t suddenly make it patentable. But if we agree with that statement, what we are actually saying is that doing “X” on a computer instead of manually doesn’t change the IP considerations of “X”.

In this scenario, what we have is an activity (cutting random phrases out of written works and rearranging them to form lyrics) that nobody ever questioned was copyrightable when done manually, but is now a serious point of contention when done on a computer.

So the questions I would ask here: Does adding “on a computer” effect IP considerations or not? Are the grounds (or warrant) for patent and copyright sufficiently different that the answer should be different for each?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

There are still massive superstars and alongside them there are now far, far more independents than ever.

“Rock and roll” might be dead – if you define that as “music that reminds me of Guns’n’Roses” – because, y’know, times and tastes change. I mean hell, “rock and roll” was already a passe term when I was a kid listening to “rock” and “alternative” in the 90s. I’m kind of amazed to see people still writing pining editorials about it today.

Here’s an amazing line from that post: You will never hear creatively original breakthrough music in a digital format.

Excuse me for a moment…




Hahah. Heh.

Whatever (profile) says:

Dumb question of the day

This is the sort of question that really makes me wonder…

Seriously. Copyright is not on the PROCESS, it’s on the product. If you put random words on a wall and threw darts at them, do you think the dart company would get the copyright?

Sorry, it’s a stupid question. The copyright goes to the person who assembled the words, sourced in whatever format, and turned them into a published work.

Otherwise, the company that made your keyboard would have the copyright on techdirt.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Dumb question of the day

“If you put random words on a wall and threw darts at them, do you think the dart company would get the copyright?”

“Otherwise, the company that made your keyboard would have the copyright on techdirt.”

These are idiotic analogies that make you look dumber than the question you’re trying to attack. Can you guess why? If not, try engaging people in conversation instead of attacking them with your own half-assed opinions.

Whatever (profile) says:

Re: Re: Dumb question of the day

The consistency of your attacks on me is truly, well, stalkerish. Do I need a restraining order? (just kidding, my overly sensitive tax haven resident).

The analogies are perfect and straight. The computer is a tool, no different from a hammer, a keyboard, or a dart thrown at the wall. it works based on the information provided to it, and uses a formula written by a man to output them. It automates what might otherwise have been a manual job, but does not in any manner exceed what it was given.

To assign copyright to the computer would be to assign copyright to a song to Korg for programming the keyboard (or worse, giving copyright to the keyboard itself).

Perhaps if you pay attention and actually read the stories, you might understand my comments better. Then again, in my world the sky is blue, so clearly in your world it has to be not blue and I am an idiot for seeing blue (and we won’t get into the semantics of the actual colors… just take the point and work with it).

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Dumb question of the day

This is the standard of his “thought” process – he posts regularly in articles attacking the posts here, probably more than I see since I only read the articles that genuinely interest me. Yet, when I see him and question his idiocy, I’m a stalker? Not to mention, how can you be a stalker when that person is willingly broadcasting himself to the public?

The lack of self-awareness and logical ability is breathtaking.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Dumb question of the day

“The consistency of your attacks on me is truly, well, stalkerish. Do I need a restraining order?”

I respond to you whenever I see you spout idiotic nonsense. You post regularly in a public forum, and you’ve usually posted on an article before I’ve read it. If you don’t like this, stop spouting nonsense in public. If I’m a stalker, Mike needs a restraining order against you long before I should be considered.

But, nice to see that you whine about your own ego long before you address anything substantial. If you’re that offended by being challenged for what you say in public, do us all a favour and stop saying it in public.

“The computer is a tool, no different from a hammer, a keyboard, or a dart thrown at the wall”

Except, that’s objectively not true. I’ve given you time to think about reality, but since your bruised ego won’t let you even think about it, here goes:

A dart and dartboard are “tools”, perhaps, but they are not deliberately manufactured for the purpose you described. The person throwing the darts has invented a purpose not intended by its manufacturer and thus the results have nothing to do with the manufacturer. Plus, a good darts player has the ability to get whatever he wants with no randomness if he so desires.

With a keyboard (computer or musical), the output is not controlled by the manufacturer except in certain ways (the sound of the output by the Korg is down to their manufacturing to a certain degree and IIRC some keyboard manufacturers have been sued for copying the “sound” of others). However, the order of notes, the ways they are played, etc. are not. Similarly, a hammer is an even worse example, for reasons that should be astoundingly obvious. You really aren’t thinking this through, are you?

With a computer program such as the one described, it’s somewhat different. The person programming the computer is making a program specifically to order lyrics in the way described. As a tool, it gives the user far less overall control than the silly examples you provided. While the person controlling the input does indeed have some control, they do not have the same kind of control as the users of your examples. The program itself has the most control here, even though the exact output is controlled by some degree by the person supplying the input, that person has no direct control over the outcome, which is chosen solely by the program.

This is completely opposed to the situations described above. Therefore, it is right to at least question who gets the copyright on the end result, as there’s at least 2 other entities involved that may have more influence on the end result than the credited artist.

Now, instead of whining about me and attacking this site, are you able and willing to address the real argument at hand? Or, are you going to continue to pretend you’re right, even as everyone else can see that you’re objectively, completely, utterly wrong with your hideous analogies?

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Dumb question of the day

Well, even if you are totally right and there’s no doubt the product is the copyrighteable part then what about that idiotic initiative where they are making a computer generate thousands upon thousands of images to copyright them all and make money? Is it fair? What incentive is there for a computer to create random stuff other than the input? If the algorithm that creates the images is the ‘product’ itself then what should we do with it? Should we grant Benoît Mandelbrot copyright for all images that still don’t exist?

You are the silly one. The question is neither silly nor unimportant.

Nate (profile) says:

I looked into this in 2013, and the lyrics may or may not be copyrightable in the US. That point has not been settled in US courts, but it has been decided elsewhere. The UK has a copyright law which covers computer-generated content, while Australia has a high court ruling which goes the other way and may cover these lyrics.

A US ruling will likely come down to the degree that a human participated in the creation. And that will turn on nitty gritty technical details, so I would not assume that all the cases will be decided the same way.

Stories written by the Wordsmith bot by Automated Insights, for example, will likely be covered under copyright because of the creation process.

Said process starts with a person handing the bot a MadLibs-style template to fill out with data drawn from a spreadsheet. (I got in on the recent Wordsmith beta.) Since that template was made by a person, any output would arguably also be under copyright.

Or at least that is my take. A judge could rule the other way.

emh2625 (profile) says:

Computer generated lyrics should be owned by the human

Computer generated lyrics should be owned by the human using the particular program. The author of the software should not.

One of the greatest honors and pleasures of my life was that I got to work with and know Iannis Xenakis, one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, and work extensively using his stochastic music program – computer code and algorithms that generated pitches and rhythms within timbre classes based on choices made by the human composer. I know firsthand that Xenakis himself, the author of the code, felt that the individual using his software owned the expression that came out of the computer. The human composer using Xenakis’ stochastic software made many decisions on the power, freedom, limitation, etc. of all of the parameters and expression that went into the piece. One could be as hyper specific of completely random and uncontrolling when it came to musical/structural decisions. And even then, when one was finished and out came the musical work, one was free to abide by what the computer gave you or not. — Back to the intent of Xenakis, the author. He felt, as do I, that the any person can use this software and that way results from its use is the copyrighted work of that user. I think this should also apply to software that generates text/lyrics. I liken Xenakis’ brilliant stochastic music program, to a great extent, to the idea-expression dichotomy, and that a particular individual owns what has been generated (expressed).

gluejar (profile) says:

Grimmelmann has an articla about this.

(he’s a real law professor.) 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.

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