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...