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Music Math The Courts

Judge Rules Pi-Based Music Is Non-Copyrightable 183

Posted by timothy
from the but-don't-go-stealing-from-feigenbaum dept.
New submitter AnalogDiehard writes "A copyright case alleging infringement of a 1992 Lars Erickson song 'The Pi Symphony' by Michael John Blake's 'What Pi Sounds Like' was dismissed by U.S. District Court Judge Michael H. Simon. Both pieces were conceived by assigning numbers to musical notes, then deriving a melody based on the pattern defined by a finite set of numbers in Pi. Judge Simon wrote in his legal opinion, intentionally announced on Pi day (3/14), that 'Pi is a non-copyrightable fact.' While the Judge did not invalidate the Erickson copyright, he ruled that 'Mr. Erickson may not use his copyright to stop others from employing this particular pattern of musical notes.' The judge further ruled that the two pieces were not sufficiently similar — for instance, its harmonies, structure and cadence are all different."
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Judge Rules Pi-Based Music Is Non-Copyrightable

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  • Now... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Immostlyharmless (1311531) on Thursday March 22, 2012 @12:33PM (#39441899)
    If we could just get this same judge, who obviously has some common sense and a critical eye for detail, to rule on a few other copyright cases, we might be able to right this severely listing ship....
  • Sensible (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Macthorpe (960048) on Thursday March 22, 2012 @12:33PM (#39441903) Journal

    I don't want to fire in the old cliché of "OMG A SENSIBLE COURT DECISION", but it's nice to see common sense employed.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Judge Michael H. Simon :
      12.03.14 - Restate my assumptions.
      1> The harmonies of the two pieces differed significantly.
      2> The structure of the two pieces differed significantly.
      3> The cadence of the two pieces differed significantly.
      4> Pi is a non-copyrightable fact.
      therefore
      Michael John Blake is an asshole wasting precious court time trying to leech any attention and money he can from anyone using the value Pi.

      • Re: (Score:2, Troll)

        by MightyMartian (840721)

        Indeed. I think if we want have these strict copyright laws, there should be equally harsh penalties when someone attempts to copyright the uncopyrightable or claim copyright on something they do not have rights. How about a fine ten thousand times the size of the damages demanded and immediate and permanent disbarment of the complaint's lawyer(s).

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 22, 2012 @12:35PM (#39441935)

    I don't see how this should be any different? I remember seeing fractal music a while back.. that shouldn't be copyrightable either? Im curious.

    • by Sique (173459) on Thursday March 22, 2012 @12:43PM (#39442051) Homepage

      The question is, how much of your own creativity is in the selection of the number sequence you base your music on.
      Pi is a quite canonical choice, so there is not much creativity in it. Creativity can be put into the rules that convert pi into an actual music sheet, and this still can be copyrightable. But just because you used pi, you cannot claim copyright infringment against someone else who used pi too.

      • His problem was that he used copyright law to protect his work. He should have patented a method of assigning values to various musical notations and using a mathematical generator based on the value of Pi to construct a melody. That way, given the crazy patent system, his work would be protected because anybody else would violate his patent.

        • Except that would fail due to the plethora of prior art. It's not a novel process.
        • by mcgrew (92797) *

          Yes, but a patent only lasts 20 years. Copyright it and you're covered for the rest of your life and then some. Patent laws are batshit crazy unless you compare them to copyright, which makes patents look sane by comparison.

          Imagine how technological progress would suffer if patents lased as long as copyrights? That's how art is suffering.

      • The question is, how much of your own creativity is in the selection of the number sequence you base your music on. Pi is a quite canonical choice, so there is not much creativity in it. Creativity can be put into the rules that convert pi into an actual music sheet, and this still can be copyrightable. But just because you used pi, you cannot claim copyright infringment against someone else who used pi too.

        The judge could have said "He can have your 3.141592654 and eat it too"

      • by Dr Max (1696200)
        If pi goes on forever and never repeats then all music could be found some where in its endless randomness. I had an idea for quick communication of long messages based on two people knowing pi to a large enough decimal, you just say use the xth decimal to the yth decimal and covert the integers to ASCII.
        • by rubycodez (864176)
          You are making an assumption there, it has NOT ever been proven that the digits of pi are "normal" (statistically random digits). we don't know if your idea would work or not.
          • by rubycodez (864176)
            for that matter, there is no such proof that any of the mathematical constants are normal, not e, not log(2), not 2^0.5, etc.
    • by orgelspieler (865795) <w0lfie@m a c .com> on Thursday March 22, 2012 @12:52PM (#39442179) Journal

      The point isn't that it's not copyright-able, but that this particular work, based on the same theme as another work, did not infringe on the earlier work. This is just common sense, and good application of copyright law (if there can be such a thing). For instance, if I arrange Beethoven's 5th for brass quintet, and you come by a year later and also arrange Beethoven's 5th for brass quintet, you haven't infringed my copyright. If, however, you transcribe my arrangement and turn it into a work for strings, you have (arguably) infringed my copyright. Something like this may be hard to prove, but it makes perfect sense to musicians.

      The point is that the "idea" or "form" of a work may not be copyrighted. But the actual work can. The combination of notes, rhythms, harmonies, tone colors, etc. all come together form the copyrighted work. If I take the same harmonic and rhythmic structure of the Pi Symphony and simply change the "melody" (if you can call it that) to e rather than pi, then I may still have infringed on Erickson's copyright. That's another grey area. I would at least consider it borrowing. Then again, there are entire genres entirely defined by their harmonic and rhythmic structure (e.g. blues), so it would be a hard argument to win.

  • by McDutchie (151611) on Thursday March 22, 2012 @12:39PM (#39441981) Homepage
    Of course pi-based music is copyrightable. TFA even states explicitly: "That doesn't mean Erickson's copyright is invalid." Both Erickson and Blake retain copyright over their respective songs, which (other than both being based off pi) are distinct. What is not copyrightable is the idea of basing a song off pi. The title should have read "Judge Rules Pi Is Non-Copyrightable."
    • by ffflala (793437)
      Thank you. IOW:

      Actual scenario: Pi-based music is copyrightable.

      Slashdot title: "Judge rules Pi-based music is not copyrightable."

      Trying to copyright the idea of writing music based on Pi is like trying to copyright the idea of writing a blues song about a woman.
      • by McDutchie (151611)
        Exactly. Of course, if Erickson had patented that idea, success would have been pretty much guaranteed. :-/
        • by ffflala (793437) on Thursday March 22, 2012 @02:15PM (#39443143)
          Ha. That reminds me --wish I could source this story, but I haven't been able to find the original source since I came across it a few years ago. The gist was this:

          -phone dial tones are actually two-note chords, and every phone number can be represented musically
          -a couple of (Australian, IIRC) composers went through all the permutations of all the chords of phone-number length
          -they then tried to enforce their copyright, by claiming every time a number was dialed it was a performance of their copyrighted song.

          It was a beautifully subversive idea. While I'm glad I don't have to pay royalties to dial a number, part of me wishes they had gotten rich for coming up with the idea.
      • Hey, I own the copyright on a blues song about a woman - but I also specified the 1,4,5 chord progression, so my copyright only covers about 99% of all blues songs.
        • by idontgno (624372)

          And the nice part is that you can issue DMCA takedowns and haul people into court even in the 1% remaining, because there's no meaningful penalty against it and the odds are certainly in your favor.

          "Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius." (Kill them all. For the Lord knoweth them that are His.)

    • You can also interpret the headline slightly differently and get the correct information. Instead of reading it as "Judge rules that this music, based on pi, is not copyrightable", it should be "Judge rules that the idea of "pi-based music" is not copyrightable". We're so used to headlines leaving out words, especially articles (a, the, etc.), that people tend to fill them in automatically. In this case, though, there isn't a dropped article.
    • by mapkinase (958129)

      Judge Rules general method of deriving your music from Pi Is Non-Copyrightable.

    • by Solandri (704621)
      There's actually a slippery slope argument in here. With all the words in the English language, there are a finite number of combinations you can arrange them to create a book. Using Pi as the root of your music, there are a (smaller) finite number of ways you can transpose those digits into a melody, harmony, and rhythm. If I roll 3 six-sided dice, there are a (smaller yet) finite number of possible outcomes for the sum of those dice (16 to be exact).

      At what point does something become copyrightable?
      • You're quite right, but Corruption is the law profession's "Division By Zero".

        Maybe you've seen those proofs of 1=0. Of course they run on an engine of D-B-Z.

        But using how it's all shaking down socially with copyright, you get "Gamer Strategies" like the one you presented. It's like a judge running you through that proof, then ordering "Divide by zero as instructed or become a Terrorist!" Then the predictably irrational result comes out.

      • by omnichad (1198475)

        Typically, simple chord progressions are not original enough to be considered copyrightable. You need to hire a million monkeys to generate music, and if they manage that before moving on to Shakespeare, then you might have a case.

    • by CODiNE (27417)

      In other words a specific song created with PI as a basis would be copyrightable but the idea itself such as "I own all PI music" is not valid.

      Sort of like how (software) patents ought to work.

  • by Rudisaurus (675580) on Thursday March 22, 2012 @12:39PM (#39441987)
    The entire dispute was completely irrational!
  • by plover (150551) * on Thursday March 22, 2012 @12:43PM (#39442045) Homepage Journal

    A long long time ago
    I can still remember how
    That number used to make me smile
    And I knew if I had my chance
    That I could make those lawyers dance
    And maybe they'd be happy for a while
    But March 14th made me shiver
    With every digit I'd deliver
    Bad news in the courtroom
    I couldn't take one more suit
    I can't remember if I cried
    When I read the judges opines
    But something touched me deep inside

    The day the copyright died.

    Bye, bye to copyrighted Pi
    Drove my Chevy to the courthouse where the lawyers would fight
    But them good ole boys were thinking common sense was all right
    Singin' this'll be the day that I die
    This'll be the day that I die

    • by MarkvW (1037596)

      A long long time ago
      I can still remember how
      That number used to make me smile
      And I knew if I had my chance
      That I could make those lawyers dance
      And maybe they'd be happy for a while
      But March 14th made me shiver
      With every digit I'd deliver
      Bad news in the courtroom
      I couldn't take one more suit
      I can't remember if I cried
      When I read the words the judge opined
      But something touched me deep inside

      The day the copyright died.

      Bye, bye to copyrighted Pi
      Drove my Chevy to the courthouse where the lawyers would fight
      But t

  • by bugnuts (94678) on Thursday March 22, 2012 @12:46PM (#39442089) Journal

    Because the choice of where to start has infinite possibility and how to assign the digits is a creative choice, it makes sense to allow copyrights on pi-based. The judge correctly limited his ruling. I would treat any such copyrights as a performance of public domain works.

  • I wonder if the court is willing to decide at what point creativity is said to occur. If I reduce "Yesterday" to a function of the night sky, would it succumb?

  • like if somebody records Bach or some other older music that is open and non-copyrightable then when someone records an album for sale and it contains classics of long dead artists then they should not expect any copyrights to it since they did not actually create anything they just recorded someone else's creation
  • Infinity (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Hellsbells (231588)

    Considering that pi represented as a decimal number is infinitely long, it would eventually contain the encoding for every song in existence.

    • Re:Infinity (Score:5, Informative)

      by Hatta (162192) on Thursday March 22, 2012 @01:03PM (#39442309) Journal

      Not every infinitely long random number contains every possible pattern. Consider an infinitely long sequence of digits. Now drop all '1's from the sequence. You still have an infinitely long series of random digits, in that knowing previous digits doesn't help you predict future digits. However, this infinite random sequence does not contain every possible pattern.

      Whether this applies to pi or not, I have no idea.

      • by qwe4rty (2599703)
        I don't think your analogy works the way you think it does. When you drop all the 1's from the sequence, you are limiting in scope (for lack of a better term) the subset of possible sequences so that they no longer have 1 in them. This doesn't prove the impossibility of containing every possible pattern when you similarly apply the same condition (ie, every pattern that doesn't contain a 1). Because Pi is irrational, my intuition tells me it would contain the encoding for every song.
        • by Hatta (162192)

          When you drop all the 1's from the sequence, you are limiting in scope (for lack of a better term) the subset of possible sequences so that they no longer have 1 in them.

          Yes, that's exactly what I'm doing. This proves that random sequences don't necessarily contain all finite sequences.

          This doesn't prove the impossibility of containing every possible pattern when you similarly apply the same condition (ie, every pattern that doesn't contain a 1).

          Why would you do that? The point is that there exists at leas

      • If you drop all '1's from a random sequence, aren't you just moving to a numeric system based on 9 symbols instead of 10?

        You can still encode every song in existence using this sequence, you'd just have to change the encoding method.

        You could do something like removing every '1', which was preceded by an '8' in the sequence, but then its not a random sequence any more, because we've just added a regular pattern to it.

    • Re:Infinity (Score:5, Informative)

      by FrangoAssado (561740) on Thursday March 22, 2012 @01:22PM (#39442581)

      Considering that pi represented as a decimal number is infinitely long, it would eventually contain the encoding for every song in existence.

      Actually, that does not necessarily follow.

      It's not known whether pi contains every finite-length sequence in its decimal expansion (although most people believe it to be true). In fact, our knowledge is even worse than that (from Wikipedia [wikipedia.org]):

      It is for instance unknown whether sqrt(2), pi, ln(2) or e is normal (but all of them are strongly conjectured to be normal, because of some empirical evidence). It is not even known whether all digits occur infinitely often in the decimal expansions of those constants.

      Here's some more discussion about that: http://math.stackexchange.com/questions/96632/do-the-digits-of-pi-contain-every-possible-finite-length-digit-sequence [stackexchange.com]

    • by ffflala (793437)
      Nope. Music is not a finite set, not even if you (inaccurately) define music only as a series of discrete pitches.

      While musical forms specify certain frequencies, there are an infinite number of pitches between any two notes. (Think of that slide guitar sound that accompanies Wile E. Coyote whenever he's stretching out his giant ACME slingshot in preparation for launch; that's one version of what infinity sounds like.) The twelve notes on a piano are an arbitrary selection of pitches.

      On top of that, the
  • A patent for creating music from numbers... using a computer.

  • And yet 433 [wikipedia.org] is copyrighted. [cnn.com]

  • ...and, as long as each artist created the work entirely independently, both would still be copyrightable.

    It's an interesting theoretical distinction between patents and copyright. Two artists could create exactly the same song, in terms of key, tempo, rhythm, melody, chord structure, tambre, etc. As long as each artists did so independently of the other, both songs would be properly copyrightable by the author.

    In practice this doesn't happen; at least I haven't heard about a real example. When one finds
  • Is PI Normal? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by tehniobium (1042240) <lukas@noSPaM.imf.au.dk> on Thursday March 22, 2012 @01:22PM (#39442583)

    This means that is has just become VERY important for mathematicians to figure out whether PI is normal (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normal_number)
    (TL;DR version: a normal number is one in which every sequence of digits occurs)

    You see, if every sequence occurs in PI, this actually means that no sequence is copyrightable, abolishing copyright right away :)

    • by melikamp (631205)
      While it is true that every finite sequence will appear in a normal number, the normality is actually much stronger. Normality (in some base) implies that every finite sequence appears infinitely many times, and the ratio of its appearances to that of all strings of the same length tends to the "fair" ratio 1/(base^length), as long as we consider larger and larger initial segments of the expansion.
    • by yfkar (866011)
      You would have a pretty hard time looking for a complete decent song in PI, which would probably be counted as creative work and copyrightable. You know, you could create all the pieces of digital music ever created by enumerating all possible binary strings and using them as audio data, which would probably be easier than looking for the songs in PI, but still unfeasible. You would even get multiple versions of same songs in different formats.

      Aside from just music, you would also get a simulation of the
  • Everyone knows music based on Tau is better.

  • So my romantic comedy/alien invasion musical based on Euler's number can just be copied?

    And there goes my 36 part interpretive dance western series based on DeVicci's tesseract constant.

    • by Anomalyst (742352)

      there goes my 36 part interpretive dance western series based on DeVicci's tesseract constant.

      Sounds like a perfect Summer Glau vehicle, did you contact her agent to see if she is interested?

      • Sounds like a perfect Summer Glau vehicle, did you contact her agent to see if she is interested?

        Where do you think the restraining order came from?

  • So does this mean that Lateralus by Tool is not covered by copyright because the cadence of the vocals and the time signature are based on the Fibonacci sequence?

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