What exactly is information?

Here's an interesting experiment on the boundaries of digital copyright: Monolith is a program that will take a file (say, MP3) and mix it with a known file so that no information from the original file is left. However, if the other file is known to the recipient as well, they can easily derive the original file from it.

Things get interesting when you apply Monolith to copyrighted files. For example, munging two copyrighted files will produce a completely new file that, in most cases, contains no information from either file. In other words, the resulting Mono file is not "owned" by the original copyright holders (if owned at all, it would be owned by the person who did the munging). Given that the Mono file can be combined with either of the original, copyrighted files to reconstruct the other copyrighted file, this lack of Mono ownership may be seem hard to believe.

For example, suppose that fileA is an MP3 of a Beatles song, and the Element file is an MP3 of a Britney Spears song copyrighted by Jive Records. It is possible to find a Basis file that, when munged with the Spears song, will produce the Beatles song as the Mono file. Jive Records certainly cannot claim copyright over the Beatles song (which is copyrighted by Apple Records), nor can they claim copyright over any other Mono files munged from MP3s of their songs.

While it's clear that this is essentially just simple encryption (an encrypted file never has any bits of the original one), and that distributing a monolith'd version of a copyrighted file is as bad as sending it in the original format, it does suggest that the concepts of "copying", "replication", and "distribution" probably need a bit more thinking in the digital age. After all, this is not about distributing a copy of the original file, but something that has the potential of becoming the original file, after a suitable transformation is found. And, since any file can be transformed to any other file, once a suitable key is constructed, you could claim that every file is copyrighted by everyone...

Read the whole discussion in the Monolith pages for a deeper understanding. Here's another interesting quote, which plays nicely on the fact that the record companies are claiming that you are only buying the CD, not the content on it:

Because the Internet cannot be used to exchange content; it can only exchange bit sequences. When people download an MP3 file via the Internet, they are downloading a bit sequence, one of an infinite number of possible digital representations for a particular piece of content. It is only when that representation is rendered, or decoded and played through speakers, that the content itself comes into existence. Thus, it is the act of playing an MP3 of an unlicensed song that is actually illegal under a true-spirited interpretation of copyright law.

This is probably not lawyer-proof, but it does illustrate a point, which I am sure, will be tested in court in the near future.

(Via Digg.)

Update: A great explanation on the colour of the bits by a lawyer computer scientist who understands lawyers, via Digitoday.


This reminds me of Krypto-Kekkonen:


(Via WayBackMachine - original page seems to have gone missing.)

--avs, 27-Mar-2006

Hmm. That was interesting thinking up there.

--AnonymousCoward, 27-Mar-2006

yeah, that is... i have seen same kind idea when napster was hot, but it based of combining multiple random and non random pads together. And when every body would have been sharing lot of pads (like millions) then one could not have been able to say what is part of which one.


Parts A=just some weather data (looks random) B=really random data C=pad to create britney spears.mp3 (looks random) D=myfavourite.jpg F=my_final_thesis.doc E=pad to create linux_kernel_image.bz

Combining A+B+C+D+F=britney spears.mp3 B+C+D+F+E=linux_kernel_image.bz

This really sux if you are thinking about transfer speeds, but point is that, with this kind of system sharing is legal. Or least nobody cannot say who is really sharing what and that one who is sharing the recepies is the bad ones, not the sharers.

--zache, 27-Mar-2006

I'm glad you like my essay, but just so you know: I am *not* a lawyer. I'm a computer scientist. More specifically, I'm a PhD candidate in the Algorithms and Complexity Group, David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science, University of Waterloo, supervised by Dr. Ian Munro.

- Matthew Skala

--Matthew Skala, 31-Mar-2006

OK, thanks. I fixed it; hope it's now in an acceptable format ;-)

--JanneJalkanen, 31-Mar-2006

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