… and the cat is still really pissed off

Yeah, hi, it’s me.

I thought I had been clever a few minutes ago in coining the phrase “Schrodinger’s copyright” to describe “poor man’s copyright”. You know the folk alternative to copyright registration where you put your work in an envelope, and mail it to yourself using registered mail (or your country’s post office’s equivalent), then keep the sealed, postmarked envelope in your files until such time that you need to prove you were the copyright owner, at which point you would produce the envelope with a flourish and open it in court?

The fallacy of poor man’s copyright, of course, is that it is not actually proof of copyright; it is proof that somebody, presumably you, stuffed an envelope with the work in question on a given date. It might prove the date at which something existed and was in your possession, but it doesn’t automatically follow that you are the author or copyright owner (it’s probably more convincing evidence of non-infringement of somebody else’s work in some circumstances).

The drawback of poor man’s copyright, though, is that while the envelope is sealed, no one (except you) knows what’s in there. And once you’ve broken the seal to produce the contents, you can’t use that same method of proof again. Just like a maybe-dead, maybe-alive, cat caught in a thought experiment.

Then I did a bit of searching, and found somebody else started using the phrase first. Damn.

However, on reflection, that applies to a contemplated situation of infringement as a consequence of the DMCA. So it’s not actually Schrodinger’s copyright… it’s Schrodinger’s infringement, and henceforth I shall refer to poor man’s copyright as Schrodinger’s copyright, which will necessitate a five-minute explanation about cats, poison and an aside about Dirk Gently.

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4 Responses to … and the cat is still really pissed off

  1. Schrödinger’s Cat is all about not knowing what you will get when you open a box until you actually open the box.

    Although a registered envelope can demonstrate you were in possession of a particular work at a particular time, the contents of the envelope are actually known as are the repercussions of opening it – despite the fact that a seal can only be broken once (though it could be resealed by a notary public).

    In the case of the DMCA/EUCD you are not permitted to break or circumvent a TPM (DRM or other encryption), although you are entitled to prosecute unauthorised reproduction/distribution of your copyrighted work. However, you won’t know if an encrypted file infringes your copyright until you open it, but then, it’s too late: either it does infringe in which case the infringer is in big trouble, or it doesn’t in which case you are in big trouble. Whether it is infringing can’t be determined without opening the box, but there is jeopardy in opening the box, i.e. in the event your suspicions aren’t confirmed. Either you will be a live cat, or a dead cat.

    So, this is why, in this particular case of two superimposed equipotential copyrights, I feel ‘Schrödinger’s Copyright’ is an apt term (given that both copyrights are effectively compromised), and more apt than ‘Schrödinger’s Infringement’.

    But, hey, I’m not taking a trademark out on it, so if you feel you can popularise the use of this term to the dating of an intellectual work, go for it. :)

  2. Krista Jo says:

    I felt the same way when I found out that someone else had also invented the pickle juice martini.

  3. Kristina says:

    What a shame that someone else coined the phrase before you, Jenna. I hate it when that happens! I get about 5 minutes of feeling that I’m a complete genius, then… boom – crashing straight back to earth.

    Thanks for the copyright lesson, though :-)


  4. Laura says:

    I love seeing science references in unexpected places. Makes me feel like less of a geek.

    Even if that other person started using the phrase first, I understood your explanation and I have no idea what that other guy is saying.