Monday, November 26, 2012

Copyrighting the Number 42: a Stunt

The funny thing about licensing digital files is that they're just numbers. Really big numbers. So when you buy a song from iTunes, you're buying the right to use a particular number for your personal enjoyment. When you buy an ebook from Amazon, what you're really buying is the right to use another number on your Kindle or on one your Kindle Apps.

Before you get all information-wants-to-be-free on me, you need to realize that really big numbers are so profoundly outside of our experience that our intuitions about them fail. For example, Oral Literature in Africa, the ebook that 259 supporters helped to "Unglue" (i.e. make it free to the world) is a binary number 21,422,526 digits long. That's a trillion trillion...(775,304 more trillion's)...trillion trillion. If every particle in the universe contained another entire universe, and each of those universes contained an entire universe, and so on, you'd need to recurse down through 9,691 universes before you'd need a number as big as the Kindle version of Oral Literature in Africa. (Go ahead and download it, it's free!).

Imagining the number corresponding to a typical ebook is even harder than understanding digital copyright, so the idea that you can copyright and get exclusive rights to a universe or two of the more creative numbers doesn't seem completely weird by comparison. But what about a smaller number?

Consider a tweet- 140 characters. That's a number at most 2240 bits long, and it seems pretty clear that a single tweet can be considered a creative effort. It's still a very big number. We'd still need to recurse through every particle in the universe about 12 universes deep to get that big a number.

So what about a number small enough that we can almost wrap our brains around it? Can we still copyright it? The string "Harry Potter", expressed as 7 bit ascii, is only 84 bits long. I can write that number in decimal: 10,995,909,510,979,633,909,936,882. Or about 11 trillion trillion. And yes, Jo Rowling has that number trademarked on its own and copyrighted as parts of much larger numbers.

Well not really. That number is an idea, and ideas can't be copyrighted or trademarked. It's fixed expressions of ideas that can be copyrighted. So, the number, together with the ascii character table, flipped onto electron spins on your hard drive, can be an expression of "Harry Potter" which is arguably copyrightable as part of a creative work.

Get 42, the ebook, NOW.
So how far can we take this? Can I copyright the number 42? Sure I can. I just have to express it in a fixed form, in a creative way. And so I present, for your approval, my new ebook, Forty Two, now available for Kindle and other ereaders and downloadable from Github.

You may argue that 42 has made appearances in other ebooks, most notably in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. You can get the Wikipedia article about the number 42 as an epub file. These are books about the number. My ebook (spoiler alert!) is the first ebook ever whose complete text is the number 42. Of course there's a cover, front matter, metadata, a table of contents and a dedication. There's even an index. You need these things to make it a properly expressed ebook.

I don't what to be a hog, I want to share the number 42 as book with others. That's why I've applied a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 license to this book. You can distribute it for free, without my permission. You can print it and sell it. I invite anyone and everyone to create derivative works. For example, I've sure that among the 17,472,032 bits used to express 42 an an ebook, there are creative bits to flip. And no, flipping the bit that makes 42 into 41 doesn't count as a creative contribution, so I own that one too! But go ahead, experiment, you can fork it on Github.

But woe unto those who try to distribute 42, the ebook, on platforms that use restrictive digital rights management. That would be a violation of the terms of the Creative Commons License, and I could sue you for a lot of money. As you probably know, the unauthorized reproduction or distribution of a copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to five years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.


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  1. Great post Eric. But correct me if I'm wrong: it looks to me as though patenting software is much like patenting an idea, which you say is not possible. I happened to read some of Richard Stallman's writings when writing a piece about Copyleft recently (here:, see Chapters 23 and 24 in particular). In fact, Stallman writes "Patents cover ideas; each patent is a monopoly on practicing some idea, which is described in the patent itself" (p. 139). He's making a convincing case of patenting as protecting an idea, isn't he? Or is he fooling us, you think?

  2. Frank, you and Stallman are correct, patents cover ideas. Copyrights (which are what this post is about) cover expressions of ideas. Patents have short terms compared to copyrights, and are invalid if there is "prior art" or if the use is obvious to those "skilled in the art". It's quite common to confuse patents and copyrights – thanks for allowing me to help reduce the confusion!

  3. The other important difference between patents and copyrights: if you hold a patent and I happen to come up with the same idea completely independently, I am still liable. Whereas if you hold copyright and I happen by coincidence to write a similar book, that's fine.