AIs, Blade Runner, and Copyright

Vox published an article yesterday about some great work that a researcher is conducting on AI and video interpretation. To put it in terms that I can understand, he programmed an AI to watch Blade Runner and then recreate it. I know the feat is much more complicated and impressive than that, so I recommend you read the article and watch the example videos before reading on.

I won’t summarize more because I want to address the legal ramifications mentioned at the end of the article and in another one published by Techdirt. The issue at hand is how copyright law plays into this project.

While I am for the loosening of copyright restrictions and taking a broad view of fair use, I don’t think that this is as big a legal conundrum as these articles are making it out to be. When all is said and done, this is video synthesis in the same way that a fake guitar sound on a keyboard is audio synthesis. Let’s start there and analogize.

If I take a Led Zeppelin song–let’s say Kashmir because it’s still my favorite–and reprogram the whole thing using a software sequencer (i.e. synthesizer/sampler/workstation) like Reason, I could easily do a recognizable version of the song, however good or bad it turns out. This falls into the category of a cover song and would be covered (hehe) by a mechanical license.

Moving the line a little closer to this example–Say I program an AI to “listen” to Kashmir and then do its best, again using Reason, to create a new version of the song. Still a cover, right?

One more step over–I program an AI to take Kashmir, analyze it, then generate that cover using the other resources I have programmed into it (i.e. I program it to create its own synthesizer). How is this not still a cover song covered by a mechanical license?

Is there a video version of a cover song with automatic laws for licensing? Not that I know of.

Is there some other magic because there is an extra step, the AI, between your intent and the result? At this point, I would argue no. This is like setting up a camera with a motion sensor that gets triggered as an animal goes by, not like a monkey selfie.

Should you be found guilty of copyright infringement for generating and sharing? In my opinion, absolutely not. At the very least, the new video is probably protected by fair use.

But, imagine generating full length AI interpretations of movies and selling them. Under our current system of copyright law in the U.S., there is a good argument that this is infringement.

To be clear, I don’t believe that this should be the case, just that it probably is.

One final note of lawyerly arrogance–why does everyone keep quoting the researcher Terence Broad when he expressed what was essentially a legal opinion about whether or not this is infringement? He is entitled to his opinion, like anyone else, but it is not clear what his basis is. It’s just a nice quote about how this is new ground in the law.

Thoughts? I am open to changing my mind here, because this is super cool work.

Things You Should Know This Week (05.07.16)


I saw Captain America: Civil War. Twice. I loved it. If you like movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you will too. Here’s a review on io9.

In a couple years there is going to be a young Han Solo movie. Harrison Ford is too old to play him, but Alden Ehrenreich isn’t.


DJ Shadow has a new album coming out in June. It’s his first since 2011. This week, a video for The Mountain Will Fall was released and it is beautiful.


WhatsApp was shut down for 3 days in Brazil. Why? Well, law enforcement wants access to messages. WhatsApp employs end-to-end encryption, meaning that they can’t get at the messages even if they wanted. So, a court got mad and told the 5 Brazilian wireless carriers to shut them down for a few days.

Copyright and Trademark law can be incredibly obnoxious in the hands of the wrong dead musician’s estate. Frank Zappa’s family highlights this as they get into a dispute with one of their own, Dweezil Zappa, over the use of the band name, Zappa Plays Zappa.

Ending on a Happy Note

The 100% Human Candidate will not be the Republican Presidential Nominee. He will, however, be a source of entertainment for days to come…and then hopefully fade into obscurity.

Ted Cruz Elbows Wife

Things You Should Know This Week (04.22.2016)

The Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in the Google Books case. For a number of years now, Google has been scanning millions of books and making them searchable (but not freely available). The Authors’ Guild sued them for copyright infringement. Google won the case in the 2nd Circuit using the defense of fair use and now that ruling will stand.

Surprising no one, the FBI wasn’t able to get any useful information off of the phone of the San Bernardino shooter’s phone.

More augmented reality is on the way. This time from a company called Magic Leap. Where Microsoft’s Hololens seems pretty cool, Magic Leap sounds revolutionary. As I’ve said in the past, I am more interested our world with AR than VR.

Prince died this week. We all know that he made lots of great music, but not everyone realizes that he was also a ridiculous guitar player. Seriously, go search around for some Prince live performances, You might have trouble finding them, though, because he was super protective of his copyrights and hated the Internet.

Doctor Who has a new companion. I really wanted to love his last companion, Clara, but she just wasn’t written that well. Hopefully they will fix that with Bill.

Ending on a Happy Note
Harriet Tubman is the new face of the $20!