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Would an Ant’s Copyright Bug You?

BoingBoing points to “wonderful art painted by bugs.” The story calls to mind a blooming, buzzing confusion of copyright controversies arising out of multi-tiered creation processes.

First, in “My Kid Could Paint That,” a filmmaker explores the arc of celebrity of a child (Marla) whose naive expressionism becomes an art world sensation. Goodwill between the documentarian and Marla’s father breaks down when the former insists on watching Marla’s entire creative process. Is Marla really the creator here, or is she coached? At what point should our anxiety over her influences die down?

Second, I remember some Isaac Asimov story where a robot starts making sculptures out of wood. It was pretty forgettable as fiction, but I think the robot ended up making money from his work. If it gets copyrighted, should the copyright go to the robot or to the entity that created the robot? Ray Kurzweil got a patent for poetry-generating software, and Richard Powers has written a wonderful book on an exam-writing robot. So the problem is not exactly science fiction.

Third, Dave Hoffman has a nice commentary on legal scholarship’s “lonely genius” ideal, and how a hive of research assistants might be bringing it to an end. Universities have decided to own some of professors’ work (namely, their lectures), and their role in consolidating credit in tech transfer is well-documented. Perhaps the rise of the RA will lead them to claim more “ownership” in non-science research as well. Let’s hope that does not mean an effort to wring dollars from it.

Fourth, in a larger sense, perhaps we can see many great minds as “recruiters” to a set of ideas and commitments. Consider these lines on Schumpeter:

[A]ll successful founders of schools not only are geniuses with profound insights but also provide a road map that tells their followers and successors what to do to make a successful academic career within the school. Schumpeter did not do that second part.

Or, as Keynes put it, “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

Which brings us back to the bugs, and the many levels of “autonomy” we can attribute to “artist Steven R. Kutcher” when he “dips the creepy crawlers in (watercolor) paint, or has them traipse through it, and then . . . lets them scurry across the canvas.” Perhaps he deserves copyright in the strange and wonderful patterns that result. And perhaps academics’ citations are ways of recognizing the many people who play the part of Kutcher for us.

Which brings me back to one reason this all concerns me. I am invested in the idea that full First Amendment protection should not be accorded to search results that are generated solely by computer algorithms. . . . for a variety of policy reasons. I have stated that “full First Amendment protection should be reserved for accountable, attributable speech–not the data processing systems that are increasingly powerful arbiters of taste, authority, and creditworthiness.” I think all the cases I’ve mentioned above beckon in that direction. . . toward a treatment of corporate or multi-layered processes of meaning-making that is different than our treatment of the expression of individuals. But I realize I have a lot of work to do to tease out those implications!