Sunday, December 14, 2008

Macieja on Copyrighting Games

Debates over the question of copyrights on chess games are old and have been around since the 19th century and possibly even before that. In the November 1894 issue of BCM, for instance, a certain Charles Tomlinson wrote:

When Mr Walker’s book appeared [i.e. George Walker’s 1844 volume Chess Studies], Staunton was very indignant at what he called ‘wholesale spoliation’ and he threatened legal proceedings. This opens a curious question as to whether there is any copyright in a game of chess. If there is, does the copyright belong to each player or in consultation games to all the players? In practice, copyright is ignored, as, when Harrwitz won the first two games in his match with Löwenthal, he told me that the games would be printed “many times over”. Of course if the games are edited with notes, the notes would enjoy the privilege of copyright, but I should like to have a competent opinion as to the copyright of the game itself.

For more on the long history of this issue, I direct you to none other than Edward Winter. His page here has the usual interesting and educational info.

More recently, the popular US blog Boylston ignited a brief flare up last year with their post, "Monroi and Copyright". It turned out to be just a misunderstanding: Monroi wasn't claiming copyright on games, merely for their database and for the live game broadcast. The same topic was taken up by Chessvibes' Peter Doggers but he, too, was a little off target. Peter's post, however, did reveal an interesting side discussion: rebroadcast of games by the likes of ICC and Chessbase. How can they get away with it if they have no such arrangement to do so? Anyway, perhaps that's for another post.

I'm going on about this because yet another well-known grandmaster has picked up the baton and run with the cause for copyrighting chess games. It is GM Bartlomiej Macieja of Poland. This guy must be smoking something good! Not only has he taken up a dead cause he also very recently won the 2nd Remco Heite Tournament (see report from Chessvibes).

Frankly, I do sometimes wish that these guys would just stick to what they do best: playing chess. Macieja's piece, published on the Association of Chess Professionals website, is pure comedy. The guy actually had the balls to compare chess to, wait for this, music!

A month ago I heard about a new approach and that conversation stood behind my decision to write this article. Let's try to compare chess with ... music! Music has a very strong legal protection, at least in theory. It is not allowed to copy a song without a permission of a singer / composer or a company who has bought the rights. Additionally, even if you have bought an original CD, you are not allowed to play it in public places without paying some money (like radio stations do). It can be compared to relaying chess games by different chess clubs.

As if that wasn't enough:

One more similarity can be seen here: One can say, that strong chess players, while looking on a scoresheet, can see a game. But exactly the same is in music. Good musicians, while looking on a stave with notes, can hear a melody. For the majority of people it is too difficult, so they use a chessboard to encode a game, similarly to people who try to encode the notation of a melody by playing a note by note on a piano. Sometimes people don't use an equipment (a board, a piano), but an encoder (pgn player, mp3 player).

What to make of that? I've heard of blindfold chess, but now he's talking about blindfold music! I'd spare you, but I know that now you're just curious. So here's Macieja in full.

It's pretty simple really. A game of chess is a particular event and the gamescore thereof is a record of that event consisting merely of facts (i.e. white player moves king's pawn two squares forward; black player moves queen's bishop's pawn two squares forward, etc). That's pretty much it. If Macieja then wants to expand on the facts, providing analysis or side stories through annotations, then, and only then, can he claim to any sort of copyright. What's so difficult to understand?


Anonymous said...

It's funny debating copyrighting games because of the many ingenious (or not) methods one could come up with for getting around it. A newspaper column could consist of "an extremely exciting game was the game between Anand and Kramnik. Interestingly a game played by your correspondent against his 5 year old son shortly afterwards followed the same course. Here is the latter game..."

(I agree, btw, that it's extremely surprising that action hasn't been taken on ICC, Chessbase live broadcasts, although even then there would probably be fairly easy loopholes).


Denis Jessop said...

If a game of chess were subject to copyright then the estate of a certain Ruy Lopez must now be owed a fortune beyond the realms of calculation.

Indeed the silliness of the concept is illustrated by this - namely question whether all or only part of a game should be so subject. In many cases the genius or invention lies in a single move or a variation such as an Opening, or a line in an opening, not a whole game.