Wolfram Wants to Copyright Software Output

I saw this at Techdirt:

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.

This is incredibly foolish on Wolfram’s part. A logical extension of this thinking leads to all software being copyrighted by compiler or interpreter makers. Nice search engine, says Intel or FSF, but we’re exercising the copyright on the output our software.

Whatever Wolfram is trying to call their latest bit of software, it still seems to be that whatever traditional intellectual monopoly claims they can make would fall under the same contours as every other bit of software on the planet. That hasn’t ever included output generated at the behest of the end user. Trying to extend copyright’s scope to that leads to some very ridiculous places, very quickly.

Think of how much of what you produce on a regular basis is mediated by at least some minimal software, whether it is a file upload client, or word processor, or a photo retoucher. I suppose Wolfram is trying to protect its investment in the database they’ve meticulously assembled to feed Alpha. The plausible explanation is they are afraid someone will start scraping Alpha’s output to reconstitute those original inputs. I think that is a feasible reverse engineer effort.

Copyrighting the output isn’t the right answer, though. I am not even convinced that Wolfram protecting their internal database is a good idea. If Alpha is as novel as Wolfram claims in terms of how it correlates and reasons about data, then opening up the database for external contribution, refinement and review would only be the Wolfram’s and everyone else’s advantage.

Unfortunately, in refuting Wolfram’s clearly absurd land grab, I fear I may have undone a favorite thought experiment, Quinn’s Symphonic Conundrum. If Wolfram cannot copyright Alpha’s output, can we really copyright the output of any massive, combinatorial algorithm capable of satisfying Quinn’s “conceptual prank”?

2 Replies to “Wolfram Wants to Copyright Software Output”

  1. I believe this is also done by electric sheep – the output of that software is supposed to be creative common licensed works.

  2. Of course you can copyright the output of a program, or nothing produced in Photoshop or Pro Tools could ever be copyrighted. Likewise, compilers or interpreters wouldn’t sell or be used by anyone if the vendors tried to claim copyright on everything produced by their users, so that’s not going to happen.

    The important quality for whether something can be copyrighted or not is whether it’s a creative work. It’s the person who did the creative work that holds the copyright. In the case of Electric Sheep or Wikipedia, there are a huge number of copyright holders, all of whom have agreed to license their work in a specific way:

    ‘By clicking the “Save Page” button, you agree to the Terms of Use, and you irrevocably agree to release your contribution under the CC-BY-SA 3.0 License and the GFDL. You agree that a hyperlink or URL is sufficient attribution under the Creative Commons license.’

    As for Wolfram Alpha, who is doing the creative work? The people who made the database, or the user who’s entering unique input and getting a unique output?

    You can’t copyright information, only creative work. Regardless of what they claim, using Wolfram Alpha’s data for other purposes is still 100% legal. All they can copyright is the creative *presentation* of that data on the page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feist_v._Rural

    This may be complicated by Terms of Use, though. I don’t know if violating a user agreement is illegal, though. Not sure how that contract law aspect of things works.

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