posted May 03, 2007

The second part of the answer, and the one most often missed by non-techies, is the fact that the content in question is an integer — an ordinary number, in other words. The number is often written in geeky alphanumeric format, but it can be written equivalently in a more user-friendly form like 790,815,794,162,126,871,771,506,399,625. Giving a private party ownership of a number seems deeply wrong to people versed in mathematics and computer science. - Ed Felten, Freedom To Tinker

While there is some truth to this, it also borders on the deceptive to non-techies. It's true that the AACS LA is trying to lay claim to a number, but it's what a mathematician would call trivially true; all copyright claims are for number (or, more accurately, sets of numbers).

For instance, this post of mine, which I chose simply for brevity, can also be trivially represented as so:

2, 423, 365, 934, 025, 061, 541, 022, 760, 646, 243, 102, 684, 324, 708, 251, 194, 520, 737, 263, 568, 838, 638, 210, 512, 349, 809, 693, 416, 873, 399, 389, 502, 230, 367, 961, 912, 032, 227, 156, 303, 033, 072, 006, 639, 079, 813, 191, 143, 324, 512, 784, 090, 802, 588, 140, 129, 862, 025, 225, 605, 270, 349, 905, 015, 652, 478, 667, 521, 185, 101, 514, 684, 244, 240, 411, 894, 437, 739, 710, 736, 140, 761, 833, 703, 405, 021, 655, 478, 058, 208, 882, 024, 166, 555, 947, 756, 020, 863, 461, 448, 058, 770, 676, 185, 277, 993, 279, 032, 785, 861, 746, 604, 212, 255, 146, 712, 610, 199, 158, 350, 734, 196, 888, 341, 829, 475, 892, 723, 116, 084, 568, 536, 146, 870, 810, 036, 682, 681, 264, 449, 478, 525, 419, 225, 996, 108, 968, 830, 369, 188, 187, 219, 930, 905, 192, 838, 181, 810, 466, 152, 617, 771, 646, 330, 384, 022, 320, 233, 221, 930, 911, 319, 781, 198, 456, 531, 058, 843, 470, 456, 816, 675, 291, 917, 791, 466, 990, 866, 053, 229, 798, 527, 146, 273, 614, 546, 628, 411, 136, 278, 274, 325, 335, 206, 676, 042, 472, 313, 401, 737, 311, 577, 060, 035, 983, 445, 730, 348, 587, 023, 384, 039, 903, 295, 997, 790, 782, 836, 311, 563, 691, 188, 787, 145, 793, 702, 638, 204, 190, 233, 051, 797, 982, 470, 002, 861, 493, 909, 825, 771, 888, 125, 372, 771, 395, 567, 604, 937, 796, 859, 254, 306, 152, 290, 748, 788, 993, 823, 971, 958, 101, 403, 587, 089, 765, 746, 749, 093, 451, 080, 791, 697, 757, 771, 107, 439, 333, 348, 387, 789, 710, 855, 313, 891, 044, 041, 577, 003, 128, 588, 315, 954, 307, 884, 894, 773, 401, 378, 022, 897, 803, 153, 195, 484, 171, 314, 060, 872, 565, 007, 396, 067, 139, 529, 302, 270, 977, 037, 528, 575, 471, 678

That's the natural interpretation of the (8-bit) ASCII encoding of the post, simply reading off the bits in computer memory as one huge number.

Does the fact that I can express this as a number mean I have no copyright claim to it now? Obviously, that's sort of silly.

This is the reason I set up my concrete part/human expression distinction in my work on copyright ethics. It's perfectly plausible for the AACS LA to claim the number in the context of being used to decode movies, without having a claim on it otherwise.

It is indeed an odd consequence of the current system that a number can be claimed and outlawed, but I'd suggest that the mere fact that it is a "number" is simply a red herring. The real problem here is the fact that the copyright system doesn't understand that all numbers are meaningless without their context. I could easily see somebody creating an encoding system where the "forbidden number" happens to describe this painting with reasonable verisimilitude, and that's just one example. The decoding system brought to a number is a critical part of the meaning of the number; without it, the number is meaningless.

While we can and should still object to the DMCA anti-circumvention clauses on general principles, it would be much less objectionable if this number were only controlled in the limited context of being used to decrypt movies. As I have shown, it is possible to construct a reasonable theoretical system that works with this, not against it, with only a modest increase in complexity. (Certainly a smaller increase in complexity than the horrible epicycles generated when you try to avoid the question.)