As computers become more powerful and software more capable this is a question that grows increasingly important, and today I decided to try to find an answer.
This topic came to my attention when I noticed that Forbes had published a summary post that was generated by Narrative Science. Forbes has actually published a few hundred articles that were generated by Quill, Narrative Science's most productive employee, but the post today looked at Adobe's financial state.
I started wondering whether I could legally copy and repost that article.
I'm not a lawyer, so I won't make an exhaustive attempt to prove an argument for or against. But I did take some time this afternoon to see of this question could be answered. Yes it can, but the answer varies depending on which country you are in.
For example, the UK passed a law in 1988 that explicitly gave a term of copyright to computer-generated content. It's called the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, and it says:
If the work is computer-generated the above provisions do not apply and copyright expires at the end of the period of 50 years from the end of the calendar year in which the work was made.
I don't see a specific explanation for what qualifies as computer-generated content, but I think it is safe to assume that the articles produced by Narrative Science fit the definition.
And in Australia I found a Federal Court decision that went the other way. It dates to 2012, and according to the IP law firm that summarized the ruling in a whitepaper:
In a recent Full Federal Court decision, it was found that source code which is generated by a computer program, or is contributed to by multiple programmers in conjunction with a computer program, will not be found to be an original literary work for the purposes of the Copyright Act, and copyright will therefore not subsist in the code.
That case was fought over MSDS data sheets produced by one company and copied by another. The sheets in question were produced in a manner that shared technical similarities to the way that Narrative Science produces articles, so there is an excellent chance that this ruling would affect any case fought over the IP of a Narrative Science produced article.
Moving on to Canada, the situation becomes far less clear. I can't find a firm answer either way, but I did find a 2010 paper from a law school professor which dissects the issue. The paper reaches the conclusion that, under Canadian copyright law at the time, computer-generated content would not be copyrighted.
And this topic is even murkier here in the US.
So far as I know this question has not been decided in the US either by Congress or the courts. I could not find any decisions, and one lawyer I checked with wasn't familiar with it either.
A straightforward reading of current US law would suggest that computer-generated content is not protected by copyright in the US - given that no actual person created the content.
But that is just an interpretation, and there is no guarantee that a judge will see things the same way. There's also the possibility that Congress might pass a law to extend copyright to cover computer-generated content. I could easily see one of Disney's lobbyists slipping it into the next term extension bill the next time that Mickey Mouse copyrights approach expiration.
Does anyone have a few million dollars to spare? We could hire a DC law firm and hash the issue out in court.
What do you think?