can a simple list of numbers be copyrighted?

For example the famous RAND book “A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates”:

Obviously the cover and design is covered by copyright but is there anything stopping anyone from stripping those off, putting their own cover on it and selling it? Legally I mean, obviously it would make no economic sense to do so. This page indicates “works without an author / facts” cannot be copyrighted:

From that page: “a work has to have a requisite level of creativity in order to qualify for copyright protection and if a work is just a repetition of facts without any creativity, it isn’t protected. This is true even if a great deal of effort went into making the product, as with a phone book.”

What says the dope?

Any book is a simple list of ASCII numbers. And yeah, it can be copyrighted.

Those numbers represent a set of characters which may or may not be copyrightable.


So, the question is: when is it not copyrightable? (Assuming it bears no previous copyright).

Allright, Exapno answered my question lawyerly. So a phone book is not protected by copyright? Never would have guessed.

Flash Boys, by Michael Lewis, recounts an incident where a code writer for one of New York’s biggest investment firms downloaded a substantial amount of public domain code from an internet site, changed a few zeroes and ones, used it at work and then uploaded it to a secure server in Germany. He was arrested by the FBI for espionage because the firm regarded every bit of that code as theirs, and proprietary work. The guy is, I think, still in prison. It’s simply a list of ones and zeroes, so yeah.

Those ones and zeroes represent something else. It’s the something else that is copyrighted. You don’t copyright characters or numbers, or even an ordered set of them, you copyright the unique original creative work that they represent.

I don’t doubt this; but it sounds very much like the dogma of transubstantiation…

In the Feist case, 499 U.S. 340 (1991), the Supreme Court said that an alphabetic arrangement of names and numbers, as found in a phone book, did not exhibit the required originality to be protectible.

Undoubtedly that rule would apply to a list of numbers arranged in order. Whether it would apply to ones arranged in random order is an interesting question, but unless the arrangement had been done by a human to express something, Finnegan’s Wake style, I predict the answer would be not copyrightable.

Would this have something to do with the work being composed of numbers rather than words?
Would the short poem: banana showdown copyright morning banana less copyright monday crown be more likely to be deemed as copyrightable than the number sequence 1 2 3 4 1 5 3 6 7 ?

While a list of phone numbers may not be copyright able, there are other copyright able things in a phone book - for example, layout, font. In other countries there are also database rights - see the UK for example.

Well then lets take another example. I do a 3D scan of an object in a format which outputs X,Y,Z coordinates of the points of a real physical object, say a teapot. There is zero creativity involved, its a set of measurements merely a “list of facts”. According to this principle it also can’t be copyrighted?

Now I’m talking about the raw output from the 3D scanner, if a human spends a few hours cleaning up the 3D scan to make it more aesthetically pleasing or fixing scan errors it could undoubtedly be copyrighted. Would I be right that the raw 3D scanner output is also “merely a list of facts” and not copyrightable?

It’s true in many contexts though - the atoms delivered to you on a plate in the restaurant of the Waldorf Astoria aren’t particularly different from the atoms that are handed to you in a paper bag in McDonalds, or, for that matter, the atoms of the dashboard of your car, or the atoms that compose the carpet that catches the errant drips of ketchup from your burger back at home.

The value we assign to things is often about the aesthetics of the specific arrangment of their components, not the components themselves.

I just want to say “Thank you, thank you, thank you” for that link!
I was having a bad day, but now I’m laughing.

448 comments, and all of them are funny.

I’m interested in the answer too. A photograph is definitely a creative work subject to copyright. You could argue that there is some creativity in creating a 3-D scan – you had to select the subject, the scanner, and the settings under which it would be scanned. Does the lighting affect the scan? Maybe that’s a little more creativity. Would a court consider a digital scan to be like a photograph? I don’t know.

The outliers of copyright are hard to pin down because cases like these virtually never go to court for a determination. You can always imagine some bizarre concatenation of symbols and ask about its status. As with an magic eight-ball the answer comes back: cloudy, try again.

Oh, god, they’re brilliant. Serious question: what the hell does one use a book like that for?

It might make more sense if you break it down to a more basic level. There is nothing new or original in Shakespeare’s works if you define them as merely a collection of characters from the English alphabet. But if you “scroll out” slightly, you find that not only are there words, there are entirely new words (like “fitful.”) Then, if you look at an even more macro level, you see that there are unique collections of words, and at the highest possible level we find unique themes and stories.

No matter what level you appreciate a phone book on, there is nothing unique or creative about the information in a phone book. There isn’t even any original research, since the information is compiled from public records that already exist in identical form. Conversely, if the book aggregated information from multiple sources it would be a new work even though it was essentially derivative.

They patent genes, which as far as I can tell requires no creativity (obviously, the method for reading the genome itself can be patented – I don’t know if it is). A genome is just a list of facts.

Only engineered (that is, creative) genetic material can be patented. You can’t patent naturally occurring gene sequences.