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A Piece of “Pi” Topped with a Dollop of Copyright Clarity

What is copyrightable: the idea or the execution of the idea?  One case just gave us the answer.

Rarely do copyright cases provide clear lessons, but last week a case out of Oregon did just that by elucidating an oft-misunderstood principle of copyright law—the “idea-expression dichotomy.” This is the rule that a copyright protects the expression of an idea, but not the idea itself.

The case involved two musicians who both love math, Lars Erickson and Michael Blake. Back in the 90’s, Erickson came up with the idea to assign numerical digits to the mathematical value of pi, and then to transcribe those digits to musical notes.

So from 3.14159…, numerals 0, 1, 2, 3… became musical notes A, B, C, D….

To his surprise, the resulting progression was rather melodic (well, that’s still up for debate, in my opinion). Within a year or two, Erickson had completed an orchestral arrangement he dubbed the “Pi Symphony.”

Twenty years later, Michael Blake did the same thing, but transcribed pi using different musical note values and melodic phrasing. Because the two songs had the same source, the arrangements were noticeably similar. In the age of YouTube, Blake’s version went viral, while Erickson’s remained in relative obscurity. Erickson sued Blake in copyright over the theft of his idea.

Erickson’s case is instructive because he lost. Spectacularly. Copyright promotes the “arts and sciences” by protecting creativity, right? However, like everything in life, this is a balancing act. Extending protection to the facts upon which creative works are based would actually stymie creativity by prohibiting others from finding inspiration from those facts. Ideas are like facts, at least for copyright purposes, because they too are a source of inspiration for the public.[1] Separating unprotected “public” source material from protected “private” creative input is a preliminary task for any judge in a copyright case.

Erickson lost because he figured that copyright protected his idea to transcribe pi’s digits to music when it protected only the expression of that idea—the intricate melody, timing, and key signature in his Pi Symphony.  The judge in his case noted that pi is non-copyrightable fact, and that the idea of transcribing pi to music is also a non-copyrightable idea (and for the legal wonks out there, the Court also talked about the merger doctrine).  The only protection remaining to Erickson was his musical interpretation— or his “expression”—of pi. And, as the judge made clear, Blake had not copied Erickson’s unique phrasing or key signature.

So the moral of the story is: You have to protect your ideas because the courts won’t always help you.

And also, don’t make weird math music.  If you do, at least throw in a picture of a cat or something, lest you condemn your “masterpiece” to Google results page 4000.

For those who wish to read more, the case is Erickson v. Blake, 2012 WL 847327 (D. Oregon March 14, 2012).

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[1] But what about patents! An idea can be patented under certain, narrow circumstances when it serves as a necessary element of a manufacturing or other transformative process. This area of law is very complicated, and unfortunately yet to see a case so helpful as the one discussed in this post!

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