Can a computer hold copyright?

Copyringht and Procedurally Generated Material

March 10, 2021

So my general opinion on copyright is that computer programs should all be open source but art should be protected by copyright. Of course there should be some exceptions to this rule (for example video games are technically computer programs but they act as art and should have the protections art does) but this simple rule is sufficient for most cases.

But what about computer generated art? I have mentioned before that I believe computers will replace composers and other artists at some point within the near future, how would music that a computer writes be protected by copyright, or even should it? Computer programs are not people and therefore can't hold copyright, if copyright should exist should it be held by the person who writes the program or by the person who runs it?

Of course it would make absolutely no sense for a piece of art generated completely randomly or by some deep neural network to be under any form of copyright since in these cases the art was created either by chance or by some process no person really understands. But what about procedurally generated stuff?

Procedurally generated content is made by plugging a random seed into a procedure of some sort which will produce a different outcome based on that seed. A very basic example of this would be a simple mathematical function like y = 2x + 1 where x is our seed, if we use the number 1 as our seed then y would be 3, if we instead used 5 as our seed then 11 would be the outcome. A game like Minecraft fundamentally does the same thing whenever it generates a new map, it takes a number as a seed, it then uses that number in a series of predefined procedures crafted by the developers then when that procedure is finished a player has a fresh and unique map. The procedures are of course much more complex than y = 2x + 1, but the fundamental process is the same.

Of course nobody is out there trying to copyright an unmodified Minecraft world (and if they were they'd likely be in violation of Mojang's terms of service) but what would happen if there was a program which procedurally generated music? Music is something that people traditionally copyright. Contrary to the opinion of some PHD music theorist who is trying to keep their job as an overpaid university professor and occasional composer, such a program is not outside the realm of possibility, in fact in some cases it would be quite easy. Consider a simple four chord song (which is what most of the popular songs you'll hear on the radio are) the melodies for these all consist of a few nearly identical verses, a bridge and sometimes a chorus all constructed out of the same four chords. A human will always have to write lyrics for these kind of songs but the melody could easily be procedurally generated by a program that has simply yet to be written (maybe I should). Not every melody that such a program would produce would necessarily be good but there would be a certain subset that would be great and could become hits. Who would own the copyright on these melodies, the person who wrote the procedure or the person who used it?

There really is no sort of answer to this that I can think of, especially if that software were to be made accessible to everyone. It could mean the death of four chord songs as songwriters would have to prove that they did actually write their melodies rather than steal them from a computer program. If a big hit were to be made using this software would royalties have to be paid to the developer? How about to the poor intern whose job it would be to plug numbers into the program all day? (Or would his job eventually be taken by a computer too? In that case how about royalties to the developer of that program?) What if someone decided to tweak the procedure, what would happen then?

As we can see there are a lot of difficult questions that need to be answered whenever computers start taking more peoples' jobs. The world does not look the same as it did forty, thirty, twenty, ten, or even just five years ago, it will not look the same in five more years. There are programmers around the world working to make certain aspects of your job, if not your entire job, obsolete. We need to make sure that the way these transitions are handled sensibly.