This is one of the most interesting things I’ve seen in a long time, not just project-wise, but for the author’s long explanation as well.
The gist is this: we allow for the copyright of a particular waveform, the product of an artist’s recording. We even allow for the copyright of a digital representation of that waveform, even though the constituent bits themselves can’t be copyrighted in an of themselves. This is enough of a quandary, but the author’s program, Monolith, uses a basis file and an element file (which, theoretically, we could say is a copyrighted work), and by its particular algorithm produces a file that contains no data from either file. It is then, however, possible to get back the original copyright work by applying the algorithm in reverse (as it were).
Consider this simple fact: for a given Element file and any other file of the same length (call it fileA), it is possible to choose a Basis file that, when munged with the Element, will produce fileA as the resulting Mono file. Therefore, if a copyright holder claims that she owns the information in all Mono files that are munged from her work, she is also claiming copyright over all possible binary files that are the same length as her work. For example, suppose that fileA is an MP3 of a Beatles song, and the Element file is an MP3 of a Britney Spears song copyrighted by Jive Records. It is possible to find a Basis file that, when munged with the Spears song, will produce the Beatles song as the Mono file. Jive Records certainly cannot claim copyright over the Beatles song (which is copyrighted by Apple Records), nor can they claim copyright over any other Mono files munged from MP3s of their songs.
It’s a sticky situation. My immediate reaction is to think of this as encryption, and I suppose it’s analogous to such: the basis file is something like a cryptographic key—either public or private—and it alters the file in such a way as to become unreadable without unlocking it. I’ve no doubt that a Mono file contains no recognizable data from either input file, but much of what he talks about on the page is self-defeating.
Think of it this way:
- A recognizable waveform is copyrightable (recognizable being a qualitative judgment)
- A digital representation of the waveform is also copyrightable insofar as its interpretation reproduces a close enough facsimile of the original work.
- If constituent bits or groups of bits themselves are not unique to a particular song or encoding of a song, then surely what’s being applied is the spirit of the law: if it sounds like Britney’s single, regarldess of its encoding, then it’s Britney’s single.
- In the spirit of the law, then, encrypting or munging a copyrighted digital representation of an analog waveform does not make the resulting file irreconcilable with the original, insofar as we are concerned. The bits may be distinguishable, but as far as the interpretation of the law goes, I’m not sure how much of a future Monolith has as the savior of P2P
But, then, the author himself claims it to be a thought experiment (with some proof-of-concept code to back it up), and it’s certainly fascinating. Reading the explanation really got my mind churning over the problem. Check it out.