Computers and Robots Don’t Count: In Copyright Law, It’s All About People

Innovation and Economic Growth, Copyright and Trademark and Intellectual Property

Article Snapshot


James Grimmelmann


Slate, Aug. 23, 2016


This article describes judge-made rules that shield copies automatically made by computers from liability for copyright infringement. Studying these cases can help decide more difficult cases involving machines such as killer robots.

Policy Relevance

It makes little sense to treat all machines or robots alike, because they are used in different ways.

Main Points

  • In a 2009 case, one court ruled that a site that stored copies of student papers to help teachers detect plagiarism did not infringe the students’ copyright in their papers, because the site’s employees did not really read or review the papers.
  • In assessing the legality of Google Books, several courts have ruled that Google’s actions in scanning and posting the books did not violate copyright law, because Google is not turning over the books to consumers to be read for the books’ intellectual content.
  • In 1908, the Supreme Court ruled that a player piano did not violate copyrights in music by performing the works, since the player pianos did not really read and understand the music.
  • Generally, the idea that copies made by robots don’t “count” as copies makes sense, because copyright law is intended to govern human creativity for human audiences.
  • However, the law governing created works authored by computer is different, because computers do “count” as authors; video games produce a new combination of lights and sounds each time, but video games can still be copyrighted.
  • When machines create works automatically, the owner or programmer of the machine is usually considered the owner of the copyright; if no one could have predicted that the machine would create such a work, it is less reasonable for the owner to claim the copyright.
  • It does not make sense to treat all creation or activity by robots the same, as we should be aware of all the different ways that the technology can be used; cases involving police-controlled robots are different from video games, but studying video game cases will help resolve harder cases.


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