Can you really copyright an Ultra Fractal parameter file?


I’m not an Ultra Fractal user but I do follow the daily exchange of information on the Ultra Fractal mailing list, an email group anyone can join.  Most of the time it’s just users sharing what looks like big long paragraphs of jumbled letters and numbers.  When opened up in Ultra Fractal the scrambled text produces an image.  They call those pieces of text, parameter files.  I just skip over them since, like I said, I’m not actually a UF user, just a curious bystander.

The actual parameter code contained in the emails mean nothing to me and probably can’t be deciphered even by an expert, but there is one little bit that I often see in them that I understand quite well and is intended to be read by everyone who looks at it –a copyright notice.  Up until recently I never thought anything of those copyright notices but after giving myself an award winning internet education on copyright, I’ve begun to feel that those copyright notices on UF parameter files are …a little weird.

Why weird?  Because indecipherable text is not the type of thing that most people would think of as even qualifying for copyright protection.  The US Copyright Office says this about what kinds of things can be copyrighted:

§ 102. Subject matter of copyright: In general28

(a) Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. Works of authorship include the following categories:

(1) literary works;

(2) musical works, including any accompanying words;

(3) dramatic works, including any accompanying music;

(4) pantomimes and choreographic works;

(5) pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;

(6) motion pictures and other audiovisual works;

(7) sound recordings; and

(8) architectural works.

(b) In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.

Here’s an example of what a UF parameter file looks like:

An example of what a UF parameter file looks like

Now ask yourself: In which of the eight categories listed by the US Copyright Office would you put the above UF parameter file?

None, of course.  It doesn’t fall under any of the categories, although “(5) pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;” is probably where most Ultrafractalists would say it fits.

But I don’t think that’s right.  The reason it’s not a graphic work is because it’s not a picture of anything, it’s a text file.  Of course it will create an image once it’s opened up in UF and that image would qualify as something that can be copyrighted, but the parameter file itself is really just a set of instructions or method of operation to make the program draw the image.  It’s not a piece of literature or a poem or even a news story, it’s just a set of written instructions or what would be better described as a procedure or algorithm.

If you look at the last paragraph it says, “(b) In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure … method of operation … or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described…”

I think a parameter file is a “procedure” and although it comes in the form of a text file just like a piece of writing would, it’s still a procedure and not a really far-out, avant-garde poem or other kind of textual work that can be copyrighted.

Now the US Copyright Office says, “Works of authorship include the following categories:”.  They aren’t limiting the coverage of copyright to just those eight.  There could be others, I suppose, that they haven’t included.  Would you expect the US Copyright Office to have considered or even known about fractal parameter files?  The wording is vague and open-ended because human expression comes in so many forms and formats.  So maybe another category could be added or proposed and it would be suitable for parameter files and other, “original works of authorship”?  But are UF parameter files “original works of authorship”?

Sure, they are.  But if they’re procedures or processes or methods of operation, then they are clearly excluded from copyright protection.  That’s because those sorts of things are covered by patent law and not copyright law.  UF parameter files look more like algorithms than the sort of “works of original authorship” that are covered by copyright.

Algorithms, even computer algorithms, can be patented.  Not in all countries, but they can be in the U.S.  The GIF file format contains a patented algorithm, the LZW compression algorithm.  Unisys caused a great deal of anxiety among software developers some time back when it acquired ownership of the LZW algorithm and was going to require everyone to buy a license to use GIFs.  But getting a patent is different from getting a copyright.  Copyright is something that occurs automatically today, but patents require formal registration with the Patent Office.  You can’t just slap a “Patented” label on a parameter file like you can with those, one size fits all, anywhere-anytime, 24/7, copyright notices.

If I’m right that UF parameter files can’t be copyrighted, then there are some ramifications to that.  For one, there would be no restrictions on copying or publishing UF parameter files.  That means anyone wanting to set up a repository of parameter files could do so without worrying that they are infringing anyone’s copyright —there would be no copyright. Those notices would just be mistakes written by parameter file authors who have misunderstood what copyright really is.

I don’t expect those notices to go away anytime soon though.  In the words of Colonel Kilgore:

"I love the smell of copyright on my parameter files. Smells like --Victory"

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8 thoughts on “Can you really copyright an Ultra Fractal parameter file?

  1. If you open a jpg file with a text editor, it also looks like text. This doesn’t mean jpg files cannot be copyrighted. As far as digital works are concerned, I would guess the rule is that the data necessary to reproduce the work is identified with the work, although I’m not a law expert. But your argument is obviously flawed.

  2. “As far as digital works are concerned…”

    The issue is: what *kind* of digital work is a UF parameter file? A Jpg file is merely a digital storage format for an image. Is that what a UF parameter file is?

    There are many things excluded from copyright protection; a UF parameter file seems to fit in better with the things that are excluded than with the things that are included.

  3. Two key thoughts strike me:
    1) utilisation of the UF parameter file depends on the underlying formulas being available. Without the formula, the parameter file remains a jumble of letters/numbers (indeed could it exist?). I presume the formulas could be patented but they are private to the author unless he/she cares to publish them for use by others. At that point they could be effectively patented but it’s difficult to see why this would be of value.

    2) It is a combination of formulas and their manipulation by the “artist” which creates the UF parameter file, That file remains a digital combination hidden within the computer until the UF programmme reorganises it on the monitor screen into the intended visual form. At that point it becomes a pictorial work and is automatically subject to copyright law. As such its intended existence depends on the flow of electricity, a working computer, and a monitor screen. The subsequent and intermediate use of printer can result in the picture becoming a truly independent entity and there is no doubt a print is more securely embraced by copyright law by whatever reading of the legislation. But…

    …Interestingly ownership of copyright rests in the hands of the artist and not with the owner of the work itself unless it is deliberately transferred from one to the other. This is just as well when a multitude of prints could possibly be produced and sold from the same source.

    Patent and Copyright serve different purposes. The manufacturer of paints might see a need to patent a distinctive formulation, but an interest in the patent doesn’t pass to the purchaser of the materials. The purchaser is free to use the paints as inspiration suggests and it is the result of this artistic input which becomes the subject of copyright.

    I read from all this that the formulas can be patented, but the parameter file restricts or refines the formulas to a distinctive method of expression which is surely more readily subject to copyright.

  4. Well, I don’t think anyone is laying claim on the parameter files – I don’t think any artist would even recognize them before sticking them into UF. But the artists still have the authorship of the image that the parameters code for. The jpeg argument seems valid to me – the UF parameter file is, indeed, storing the code that generates a particular image when opened with a particular program. The copyright notice within is some sort of a non-encrypted blueprint that stores the information of the creator of the original piece. I’m failing to see the problem here since I’ve never seen a single fractal artist (not just UF) running around claiming ownership of the sequence “etqs8ybaq7WuY31” as the top right pixel of their artwork, nor have I seen anyone being able to identify their parameter files from mere sight.

    That said, the real issue usually tends to be (as argued by some fractal artists even) that, since discoveries cannot be copyrighted, and fractal images are essentially visual calculations of certain mathematical formulas and algorithms and ‘discoveries’ therein, they shouldn’t be subject to copyright. I don’t tend to agree with that for various reasons, but that seems like a more valid argument with more serious consequences, compared to copyright of parameter files.

  5. Tim said:
    The issue is: what *kind* of digital work is a UF parameter file? A Jpg file is merely a digital storage format for an image. Is that what a UF parameter file is?

    Yes, it is. There is absolutely no conceptual difference between a parameter set and a jpg image. Both contain data, that a certain algorithm can use to display an image on your screen. Displaying a parameter file just requires more computations from the computer, yet there isn’t any difference in essence.

    It is not at all a “process”. The processes are the algorithms, which arguably cannot be copyrighted.

  6. . . . . . Sam said : “There is absolutely no conceptual difference between a Parameter set and a JPEG image.”

    Actually, there is a lot of difference between these two items:

    • One is a rendered image that will not change, as long as the software that displays the JPEG format does so correctly, and the original JPEG format was correct when written. The other is a set of values to be used for a rendering process, which then depends on the same version/release/mod-level of that application being used each time, and the formulas and other criteria (transforms, gradients, etc.) not changing from the original coding. But since software and other criteria are usually always changing, one cannot rely on the Parameter set to create the original image, which the graphic file format should always be capable of displaying correctly.

    • Etc… (I would go into other various differences, but I have found that arguing with some of the Fractali and other UF “promoters” is like beating one’s head against a wall of ignorance. They refuse to see past the ends of their noses.)


  7. By that reckoning, it seems that a graphic image produced by a parameter file could be copyrighted, but not the param file itself. But what good is the param file by itself? So as soon as someone renders the file, they are in violation of the copyright. So isn’t it basically the same thing?

  8. Y’all seem to admit that you don’t really know what an Ultra Fractal parameter file is.* That being the case, I would suggest at least one thing: nobody knows what a UF file is when it comes to defining it in a legal case involving an artist’s attempts to protect her work. Eventually, somebody may bring action agains another person, and the courts (or at least the plaintiff) will be required explain just what it is about a work involving fractal geometry that deserves the proteoction of the law. Until then, it’s really a moot question, and the subject of taking somebody’s work, calling it your own, and using it for personal gain falls entirely with the realm of morality (ethics).

    I would predict that that a UF parameter file is simiilar if not identical, legally, to (X)HTML and CSS coding, that whatever eventually becomes of one will most likely come of the other. But then, what do I know?

    *Footnote: (Neither do I. I’m such an Ultra Fractal Noob that I don’t even know how to install, view, or otherwise experience a UF parameter file. In fact, I don’t even know how to ask, judging by the responses — or lack thereof!)

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