Could Quantum Computing Kill Copyright?

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The basis of copyright law is individuality and creativity. Yet ever increasing computing power and storage space could mean that in just a few short years, computing could throw copyright into chaos.

The relationship between technology and law is a difficult one. Law attempts to put rigid walls around society, to define can and cannot. Technology, on the other hand, attempts to turn cannot into can.

Making it even harder is the reality that laws tend to lag about a decade behind technology. It took 10 years for the legality of the video cassette to be decided, and even now new laws are being written to deal with P2P, a decade after BitTorrent was first debuted.

While these two technologies have caused problems for copyright owners, by disrupting the status-quo around distribution, the incredibly fast growth in both computing power and storage could soon lead to a fundamental shake-up in copyright.

As it stands in US law (and remember, US law rules throughout the world,  even if it’s legal, or you’ve not been there in decades) the creator of a picture is the copyright holder. Even if you drop the resolution, or reduce the number of colours to simpler shades, it is still considered by many to be under the original copyright.

So, what if you could create every possible picture? What if you took a fairly low resolution (say 500×500) and a reasonably low colour mix (say 256 colours) and tried to create every single image? What then would be the state of copyright? It’s the visual equivalent of the infinite monkey theorem.

If you could do it, then the project would own all the copyrights, to every image not already copyrighted. Furthermore, since it’s an independent creation with no outside reference to draw upon, works and images similar to those already copyrighted are not infringing.

There is that word though – ‘if‘. 500×500 with 256 colours might seem like a small, grainy picture now, but it’s a massive field of data. 250,000 pixels, each with 256 possible shades comes to 9.802 *10602059 and that’s a large number; 9 with six hundred thousand zeros after it!

“You would pretty much need a quantum computer and massive storage space for this to become even slightly feasible,” says Stephen Brooks, head of the Muon1 DPAD project based at the RAL near Oxford.

The problem is clear. At present the RC5-72 brute force effort has been going on for 8½ years, and is only 1.7% done.

“Creating an image is faster than cracking an RC5 key but not that much, and there’s still space issues,” says Brooks. “You could easily fill 1Gb per hour, per user.”

However, while it’s not feasible now, 20 years down the line it may well be possible. Already some strong progress has been made towards quantum computing and with technological progress as rapid as ever in this field, it’s a question of sooner, rather than later.

In a very real sense, technology might kill copyright in our lifetime.


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