Sunday 18 March 2012

No copyright in mathematical constant Pi

Pi Pie
As is well known, on 14 March (3.14 ... got it?) every year is Pi Day. This is the day when the world celebrates fascinating mathematical constant pi or π, which is approximately equal to 3.14. It was in 2009 that the US House of Representatives agreed that the US should also have an official Pi Day.

Pi Day has been celebrated every year since 1988 at the San Francisco Exploratorium, with staff and visitors marching around a circular space and eating fruit pies, reports CNN's EatocracySadly enough, celebrations were spoiled last year, when a copyright infringement lawsuit was brought before the US District Court for the District of Nebraska.

The plaintiff, Nebraska's resident and jazz musician Lars Erickson, sued Oregon's resident Michael John Blake, claiming copyright infringement over a US copyright registered musical work Pi Symphony, which had been created in 1992.

At the beginning of 2011, Blake published on YouTube a video featuring his work What Pi Sounds Like. This had translated Pi's first few dozen digits into musical notes. The video was pretty successful and went viral. In the words of New Scientist, Blake found himself a nerd celebrity, fielding emails and phone calls from multiple media outlets. However, promptly upon learning about Blake's work, Erickson contacted Blake to inform him that What Pi Sounds Like sounded substantially similar to Pi Symphony and therefore amounted to an infringement of Erickson's copyright.

Initially, Blake agreed to work with Erickson in an effort to avoid any infringement claims. This did not last long since, in April 2011, Blake re-published What Pi Sounds Like on YouTube and offered copies of his work for sale on iTunes and CD Baby websites. The removal of his creation from YouTube had been "like being stabbed", said Blake. "This great thing I'd created, and then watched explode, was gone. I felt robbed", he added.

As a consequence, Erickson commenced proceedings before the US District Court for the District of Nebraska. The plaintiff claimed both copyright infringement and unfair competition and sought actual damages, disgorgement of profits, statutory damages, and reasonable expenses and attorneys' fees.

Copyright Cookies
Following issues as to whether the Court had personal jurisdiction over Blake as per Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(2) and (3), the action was transferred to the US District Court for the District of Oregon.  There, appropriately on Pi Day 2012, US District Court Judge Michael H Simon dismissed the claim for copyright infringement. As reported by New Scientist, the judge found that "Pi is a non-copyrightable fact, and the transcription of pi to music is a non-copyrightable idea", also because "The resulting pattern of notes is an expression that merges with the non-copyrightable idea of putting pi to music."  The Judge also held that the two musical compositions differed sufficiently as regards tempo, musical phrasing and harmonies.

Although Pi is a constant which is also constantly challenged and some people think we should get rid of it in favour of Tau, this irrational number is still there and remains one of the most beloved constants in the world of mathematics. In conclusion, Pi is a bit like the endless saga of the idea/expression dichotomy (IED) in the realm of copyright. Regrettably enough, there is still no IED Day to celebrate with fruit pies.

A copy of Judge Simon's Opinion is available here. Thanks to Joseph Gratz for letting the 1709 Blog know. 


Joseph Gratz said...

I grabbed the opinion from PACER and uploaded it to Scribd. Here's the URL:

Quite good analysis.

Eleonora Rosati said...

Thanks Joseph. I have just updated the post

Lucile said...

Completely agree with the Judge: music IS mathematics and this was just a transcription of the number. Why did the person complained in the first place?