Your Brain, Copyright, and Lossy Compression

Last week, the New Zealand government passed a controversial copyright law related to file sharing. This was partly outrageous because of the use of urgency to pass these laws without due consultation. If you watch any of the videos from that particular debate, it will shine a light on just how clueless the majority of NZ’s politicians are. The notable exceptions are Clare Curran and Gareth Hughes. However, this isn’t a post about the politics! Instead I want to talk about the philosophy behind copyright and how as technology becomes an intrinsic part of our intelligence, the less sense it makes to challenge the personal dispersal or storage of information.

For a good introduction to the topic, read this post on the “colour of bits”. The post outlines the conflicting viewpoints on information: How computer scientists can’t academically differentiate between one copy of a copyrighted piece of data and another, but the pressure from law to try to make something up regardless (e.g. DRM). It also discusses how, if you perform a reversable mathematical transformation of the bits you are fundamentally changing the data but can restore it at any moment. If you can do that, is the transformed version copyrighted too? Given that with the right transformation you can turn any sequence of bytes into any other. That means there is only one copyright holder: the universe.

My interest in the topic comes from my background in AI and thinking about the mind and consciousness. If making a recording of a song without the permission of the rightholder is illegal, what does it mean when you remember a catchy song in your mind? A lot (if not all) of what brain does is information processing, and the patterns stored in your neurons also store information. Now, clearly we don’t have full HD recordings of feature length films in our head that we can replay at will, … even if some people have photographic memory, “videographic” memory is probably even rarer. Regardless, older memories will still be degraded as new sensory input is absorbed as that’s the nature of intelligence. Full representation doesn’t scale and isn’t actually intelligent (in fact, people believe that the compression research is strongly related to AI research as it’s all to do with predicting the next bit in the bit sequence).

What I’m curious about is when does a piece of copyrighted material lose it’s copyrighted identity?

Everyone by now is familiar with MP3s for storing music. Unlike FLAC, the MP3 format is a lossy compression algorithm. Admittedly, it’s a very good algorithm that is ideal at representing audio well with a minimum of bits, but it’s still not an identical copy of the original recording. It’s only qualitatively the same to a human listener after it is decoded. What happens if you slowly decrease the bitrate though? (The bitrate is the number of bits per second you allow the algorithm to use for storing the audio). At what point does it become indistinguishable from another similar song. At what point does the representation become worse than the ability of our minds to remember the song? This is pretty low – even at 24 kbps one can make out speech (most music is distributed at 192kbps or higher these days)… however, humans are able to identify many songs just from hearing a tiny part of it. So clearly there is a fair amount processing going on in our heads to do this recognition. In other words, you can’t exactly recognise a low quality recording of a song as the original song unless you here the original first. Once you’ve heard the original, it’s easy to hear the song’s melody/rhythm in a lower quality recording.

Why is this of interest right now? I think that as we progress along a continual symbiotic interaction with technology, the more we rely on it to represent our identity. I use Evernote as my offboard memory. This is a curated collection of notes that has a lot of meaning for me and without it I’d be severely crippled in my job. The same goes with my GMail history and ability to search thousands of emails.

This is also not a new thing. People have used notebooks and filed their paper mail for hundreds of years. If someone wrote a copyrighted poem into their notebook, they are essentially breaching copyright. The difference now is that we can trivially share notebooks with essentially zero cost.

I think one of the problems with copyright is that the boundaries of where an individual starts and begins is dissolving. It’s no longer purely about our physical position and the information flow is not constrained to only our local environment and surroundings.

(Note: I wrote a quick note about similar ideas back in 2006: Multimedia copyright. Ironically for the music industry, the specific example I give there is what lead me to buy lots of alternative music!)


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