Copyrighting Pi

It’s March 14 — 03/14 — and that means it’s Pi Day 2011. The day of the year where we celebrate everyone’s favourite irrational transcendental, 3.1415926535 8979323846 2643383279 5028841971 6939937510 5820974944 5923078164 0628620899 8628034825 3421170679, etc..

In trying to find an appropriate video to go with this post — hopefully one as good as last year — I stumbled upon a video of the Michael John Blake tune, “What Pi Sounds Like.” It goes like this: First he assigned numbers to notes — middle C is 1, D is 2, E is 3 and so on — so, seeing as you all know Pi starts 3.14, the first three notes of his piece are E C F (3 1 4), then his song went on from there to include the first 31 digits of Pi.

Next, using the circle of fifths, he assigned numbers to chords. He brought everything together into a composition for piano, accordion and autoharp — played at 157 beats per minute (which is 314 divided by two).

It’s a pretty simple idea, really, and you’d think it would come out sounding like random noise. But it doesn’t. It was actually a pretty swell little folky instrumental.

But when I went to embed that video into this post I got a notice that his tune had been taken down by Youtube due to a copyright claim.

What the hell? How do you copyright Pi?

Well, turns out, no big surprise, Michael John Blake wasn’t the first person to come up with this idea. Back in the nineties, a cranky old man named Lars Ericksson did the same thing with a full on orchestra and called it the “Pi Symphony.”

So here you have a situation where two songs composed independently are based on the exact same concept and as a consequence have identical core melodies. And I guess the question is, can the first person to do this claim the second is violating his copyright?

I say no. Not when the kernel for both songs is cribbed from a fucking mathematical constant.

And yet it happened. And Blake’s song is no longer available. As for Ericksson, based on what I’ve seen of him online, he’s one of those typical, pompous classical music twats who probably thinks his idea is the product of a solo moment of inspired, artistic genius. And he’s of a particular generation as well. Only a baby boomer would be sufficiently self-absorbed to think an idea like this sprang first in history from his own brain pan.

If the Library of Alexandria had survived, I’m willing to bet that you’d find some ancient Grecian troubadour had written something very like this but for lyre and nose flute.

Of course, I think there might be something else at work here. Professional jealousy. I was lucky enough to listen to both Blake and Ericksson’s pi songs, and Blake’s is fun and whimsical. It’s a little ditty, competently assembled, but lacking in arrogance. It has hand claps and tapping blocks of wood. And accordion for crying out loud.

Ericksson’s, on the other hand, is your garden variety concept piece for strings and horns.

Snore.

No wonder Blake was going to be interviewed about his “What Pi Sounds Like” on NPR today (until he was bumped because of coverage of the earthquake in Japan). And Ericksson? Well, he wasn’t.

Hopefully, this all gets sorted out because I doubt very much it’s possible that Ericksson’s copyright claim has a leg to stand on.

Meanwhile, I’m going to churn out some crap tunes based on the digits of e, i, Feigenbaum’s constants and the Golden Ratio. Because then, if Ericksson gets away with his claim, those numbers will be mine!

Update! Seems everything is sorted out. There is justice in Youtube land. Blake’s song is back up. And here, without further ado, is his video….

Another update: In other news…. Phi (aka The Golden Ratio) defeated Pi in the University of Regina’s annual Pi Day Debate. This is the second year in a row that Pi’s champion was vanquished.

Author: Paul Dechene

Paul Dechene is 5’10” tall and he was born in a place. He’s not there now. He’s sitting in front of his computer writing his bio for this blog. He has a song stuck in his head. It’s “Girl From Ipanema”, thanks for asking.

You can follow Paul on Twitter at @pauldechene and get live updates during city council meetings and other city events at @PDcityhall.

7 thoughts on “Copyrighting Pi”

  1. Talbot: Perhaps you’d be happier then celebrating July 22. 22/7 = Pi Approximation Day.

  2. “…typical, pompous classical music twats…”

    …It’s sweeping generalizations such as this that got you kicked off the RSO reviewing beat, wasn’t it Paul?

  3. It’s no one’s fault that you don’t like classical music.

    What Eriksson did was to interpret Pi as a movement in E, and then apply it as a circle of fifths; something fairly novel. Burke simply built on that work. As a question of copyrightable melody, Eriksson has a decent case for copyright infringement although I doubt a court would actually side with him in terms of allowing for fiscal damages.

    Burke’s work was derivative and he could have avoided the entire problem by crediting Eriksson for the basic classical theory behind his own piece. He didn’t and because Burke’s piece was a much more accessible style for young listeners his own video became much more popular. Burke, as a result, was generally credited for coming up with the concept, the scale, and the score.

    I can imagine this was more than slightly heart breaking for Eriksson, who spent a lot of time and effort thinking about how to best represent Pi as music.

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