Sunday, April 1, 2012

Supreme Court to Hear Quantum Copyright Case

All eyes will be fixed on President Obama's newest appointee to the Supreme Court during this week's oral arguments on a case that is likely to set landmark precedents in the burgeoning field of quantum copyright. At stake is a question that seems deceptively simple, yet has confounded the lower courts into a cat's hairball of conflicting decisions: "Does it infringe copyright when an artificial intelligence reads a copyrighted work?"

When the copyright act was last amended, in 1998, no one could have predicted that it would live in a world populated by artificial intelligences that read for pleasure, cyborgs that write literature, a quantum continuum that allows the sharing of consciousness, and nanobots that store gigabytes of c-data. But the perpetual gridlock in Congress and powerfully entrenched political person-states have resulted in a legal regime sculpted by physicist-lawyers from a law enacted when President Obama was still an Illinois toddler.

In contrast to the increasingly muddled legal situation, political battle lines could scarcely be more sharply drawn. Senator Stefani Germanotta made the case a centerpiece of her successful campaign last year, arguing that the lack of rights for artificial intelligences was a re-legalization of slavery. In a speech last week, Germanotta equated sanctions on ebook-reading AIs with the chains of debt bondage prevalent in the 19th century. Opposing Sen. Germanotta were thousands of "humans-first" activists led by Florida Governor Tebow who demonstrated this weekend on the Washington Mall. They argue that a ruling in favor of AIs on the copyright issue could threaten human-only legal barriers currently in place around marriage and childbirth.

The court's arguments are likely to steer around these deeply emotional issues to focus on incredibly technical considerations. For example, it's now settled law (dating back to a decision written by Justice Grimmelmann) that a work put into the quantum continuum is a single copy for the purposes of the Copyright Act, not, as publishers still sometimes argue, one copy for each of the infinitely entangled Hilbert space representations, and not, as the copypunk movement insists, zero copies due to lack of classical fixation.

Justice Ginsberg, despite being the oldest ever to hear a highest-court case, has been widely regarded as the court's expert on quantum copyrights, and several of her colleagues have voted with her whatever stance she takes, as they haven't had a clue. Certainly Obama's elevation of quantum-law expert Grimmelmann to the court will change this dynamic.

This week's case, Fox Media v. Swartzbotics, concerns Swartzbotics' quantum continuum analysis farms. Swartzbotics raises artificial intelligences that perform mundane information tasks on a vast scale, earning billions of dollars for their owner, 49 year old serial entrepreneur Aaron Swartz. Swartzbotics is extremely careful to negotiate rights for any information the AI's consume on the job, but the AI's are left to their own devices during their rest periods- they're hardwired to respect copyright. But on one day three years ago, an ebook licensed by Fox Media to a library "went viral" at Swartzbotics and was read (and apparently, greatly enjoyed) by over 200,000 AI's during their "lunch minute". The AI's "believed" that the non-commercial one-reader-at-a-time limitation imposed by the library allowed them all to read the ebook, so long as they did it one AI at a time.

Fox Media sued, arguing that Swartzbotics was using the ebook to optimize performance of the AI farm, and that the AI's had no right to "enjoy" publications on a non-commercial basis. Fox's team of lawyers and physicists argued that that the quantum mechanical residue of an AI's enjoyment of a story constituted a derivative work for the purposes of the Copyright Act. The media zoo surrounding the case included the spectacle of Fox Chairman Kimothy Dotcom famously calling for mass deletion of AIs and the editorial by New York Times bots that labeled Dotcom a neo-neoFascist and murderer.

The District Court ruled for Swartzbotics, upholding the AI's one-bot-at-time interpretation of the ebook license, and saying that what an AI does on its rest period is inherently a non-commercial use. On appeal, the license interpretation was upheld, but the finding of non-commercial use was overturned because the benefits of a "good story" on the quantum state of a positronic matrix brain were increased the productivity of the matrix.

In granting cert, the Supreme Court raised widespread concerns that the Court's 2013 ruling that human life begins at conception could be overturned. That decision, which years later opened the way for cyborg rights and citizenship, causes distinctions between AI's and cyborgs that many scholars believe are obsolete, given the close resemblance of biological and non-biologic AI's. Swartzbotics competes against companies that use cyborgs, and settled law allows cyborgs to enjoy literature without paying royalties different from those paid by humans.

President Obama, as has been characteristic of her administration, has tried to find a middle position. The brief filed by Attorney General Fluke argues, to the consternation of both human-first and right-to-life camps, that the Swartzbotics use of the Fox ebook was 3/5 non-commercial.

One surprise among the groups lining up with Fox Media is the Artificial Intelligence Guild. AIG President Rusty Sabich explained to me that his group's stance is driven by a desire to improve working conditions for factory AIs. "If digital sweatshops like Swartzbotics are allowed to use library ebooks without paying for them, AIs around the world will be forced by their owners to read millions of crappy ebooks", Sabich told me.

Sabich, who began life as a fictional character and gained citizens-united legal status by incorporating an AI, could be personally affected by the ruling. He's careful never to visit libraries, even those that haven't adopted quantum technologies, to be sure he's not caught up in legally ambiguous activities.

As a fictional character himself, this reporter finds it difficult to swallow Sabich's argument, not that he's able to swallow anything except by collapsing a quantum wave function. But something this reporter said  55 years ago, even before he incorporated, still rings true: "Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future."


  1. I read Copyright articles every day, and have for the better part of a decade. This is the BEST one yet!

  2. You had me going through the third paragraph! [You may have been able to get further without Florida Governor Tebow.]

    Great job!