A century ago, the cutting edge in artistic robotics was the player piano. The Supreme Court heard a player-piano case in 1908 and held that the paper rolls “read” by the player pianos weren’t infringing. The rolls, Justice William Day reasoned, “[c]onvey no meaning, then, to the eye of even an expert musician.” Instead, they “form a part of a machine. … They are a mechanical invention made for the sole purpose of performing tunes mechanically upon a musical instrument.” The anthropocentrism is unmistakable. I’ve cataloged many different settings where copyright law finds ways to overlook copying as long as no humans are in the loop.
On the one hand, this makes perfect sense. Copyright is designed to encourage human creativity for human audiences. If a book falls in a forest and no one reads it, does it make an infringement? It seems like the only sensible answer is “No harm, no foul.” On the other hand, there’s something strange about a rule that tells technologists just to turn the robots loose. It encourages uses that don’t have much to do with human aesthetics while discouraging uses that do.