K/DA and Holographic Performance: Computer Code or Dance Choreography? 

Copyright applies when a creative expression is fixed in a tangible medium. This has presented questions and problems for certain kinds of creative works, of which my two favorite examples are fireworks and dance. Like a beautiful explosion of color in the night sky, the dancer does not leave a fixed expression in a tangible medium after leaving the dance floor. However, it is possible to fix the dancer’s choreography in a tangible medium—and maybe there is a new way to do that.

“So Keep Your Eyes On Me Now/ The Show Is About To Start”

At the 2018 League of Legends World Finals, some 90 million spectators (including some 23,000 live at Munhak Stadium) were treated to a musical performance that featured life-sized augmented reality projections of fictional pop-star characters dancing alongside physically present, corporeal, non-fictional dancers. This is not the first time a hologram has performed at a live concert: Tupac graced Cochella with his digital and photonic presence in 2012, despite the inconvenience of his death in 1996.

My idle, speculative quandary in the case of K/DA Pop/Stars is whether a dance routine performed by holograms can be registered as choreography for the copyright office. For a lot of reasons, it really doesn’t matter in this case—Riot isn’t going to litigate around this issue (though people may change their tune about copyright), and to the extent that they do need a copyright registration for this, it’s unlikely to matter whether it’s classified as choreography or as a computer program.

Still, it’s an interesting issue to explore because the finer details of technology can sometimes inform how a judge will rule (as in the case of embedded Tweets).  Can someone register copyright for a computer program that directs the lights and projection machines to present the images of the hologram in such a sequence and manner as to create the illusion of a dancing individual? It would be interesting to see how the Copyright Office or courts would parse a computer program for a dancing hologram.


Drawing Distinctions

Law can take controversial twists around new technology because an adjudicator struggles with the technology involved. Typically, this means someone has either embraced the extreme of refusing to recognize a substantive difference in a new technology, or someone has gone to the other extreme of imagining a difference with a new technology that isn’t supported by reason.

When faced with new technology, the easiest move is to look back at other technology and see if an analogy can be made. The obvious subject for comparison is traditional animation. In broad concepts, there are plenty of similarities between creating a hologram dancer and drawing and animating a dancer. The tools are clearly different- so how similar is a keyboard to a pencil? The uses, purpose, function, and the end results of the tools are similar enough—but there are also very clear distinctions. Copyright law has made an effort to be medium-neutral: it doesn’t matter if a novel is written on paper, caved into rock, or saved in a PDF.

It might be that augmented reality and holograms are simply a new flavor of animation, and, from a copyright perspective, there’s simply nothing new to see here. However, the combinations of new technologies are more likely to produce something substantively new. Anthropologist Thomas de Zengotita is fond of the point that a hurricane is just a lot of breeze—yet everyone treats the two as substantively different. I take it that he means that a sufficient accumulation of non-substantive changes, at some point, creates a substantively new category. This is the core distinction that adjudicators have to make: is a new technology substantively different, or just a different medium for something that is already established?


“So Can You Handle What We’re All About?”

Is a computer program of choreography is substantially different from a recording of a dance? The choreography is the script for the dance. A recording of a dance is how a particular dancer happened to perform the dance. Copyright distinguishes between the sheet music and a recording of the performance. In the case of a computer program that simultaneously generates a dancer and dictates the movements of that dancer, can the performance be separated from the script? The choreography only exists as it is embodied in the performance itself.

This raises a further question as to whether effects of the performance are also part of the choreography: for example, the moment in which Kai’Sa fires a firework-like lighting effect during the performance. If it is part of the code, and the code is the choreography, then this effect is part of the choreography—although it seems like something that should be a production direction, not part of the dance itself.

As unlikely as it sounds, some adjudicators might look to the question of whether the computer code recognizes a difference between pixels and limbs. That is, the question might turn on whether humans can recognize the code as dance instructions. An adjudicator might reason that the computer cannot dance, and so the execution of the code is not the performance of a dance– thus, someone who can dance must be able to interpret the instructions so as to perform the dance.

If we want to make this more interesting, we can imagine this technology combined with an AI that creates new dances. Here, the AI dancer is also the author (unless the author is the rights holder of the program). We can further ramp up the question by putting this AI choreography in a robotic humanoid body and turning it loose on the dance floor, where it transcribes its own choreography as it creates it.


Fortnite Is Dead, And So Are The Copyright Claims (Hyperbole or Prognostication?)

If Riot (I assume Riot holds the rights for the K/DA performance) can register the work as a dance, they will probably need to register the entire dance. The Copyright Office has rejected the attempts to register the brief dances (micro-choreography?) of several plaintiffs who are bringing suit against Epic Games. As I already discussed, these plaintiffs may still have claims under some use of personal likeness laws, but it looks like their copyright claims are unlikely to get off the ground after the Copyright Office denied registration.


The Bigger Picture: “Wish ya luck”

Ultimately, this is exciting because this is what it looks like when technology, culture, and law meet. This is exactly what it is: Epic Games monetizes dance moves that are popular and known and publicized, and before the lawsuits can even be dismissed, Fortnite has already lost its player base to Anthem and Apex (odd twists of identity theft included for added 21st century flavor). These fringe, unimportant, idle explorations form the basis for decisions that affect the bottom line of corporations and the constraints on artistic productions. For the adjudicators of copyright law, this only gets harder: As computers become increasingly sophisticated and increasingly common tools for the production of works of art, the Copyright Office will face increasingly difficult questions.


Tooth And Tail: Lessons in Planning With Realistic Expectations

Tooth and Tail is simple. It has to be simple because the game designers had a very challenging goal: Make a Real Time Strategy game that is reasonably playable on a console. Real-Time Strategy games are notorious for needing high-speed and complex inputs (professional Starcraft players’ fingers perform over 400 actions per minute) that are simply not possible with the constraints of a console controller (even with all of the buttons they’ve added after Nintendo produced the perfect game controller in 1990). But the designers were smart, and they looked realistically at the constraints of the system, and they crafted the game to fit those constraints. The result is a playable, enjoyable game about a Soviet-revolution inspired rodent uprising on a farm. The designers of in-house corporate programs and databases need to learn to be realistic about the actual uses of their programs.

I. Lesson in Project Design: Accept the Probabilities of Disaster so you can Plan for Prevention; Don’t Plan for Immortality and Invulnerability. (#dontbeateen)

In the digital age, there is an increased focus on preventing and eliminating problems/errors. The promised outcomes of flawless perfection are enticing, but the realities of inevitable problems require more effort be put into managing problems and recovering from disasters.

Computers amplify the speed and scale of what people can do. This makes it easier for people to do more, and to do more, faster. This includes making mistakes bigger. Years after a British woman got 15 minutes of fame for accidentally ordering 500kg of chicken wings, Samsung accidentally made a $105 billion ghost.

Samsung Securities Co (a financial services company owned by conglomerate Samsung Group) tried to pay a dividend to their employees, but accidentally gave the employees shares instead. The 1,000 WON dividend became a 1,000 SHARE distribution- creating over $100 billion in new sharesThen some employees immediately sold those shares. There were a lot of safety measures that failed in this story. The program should have been able to calculate that this order totaled over 1 trillion WON, more than 30 times the entire company value. A second human should have checked over the work for simple, obvious errors when there is a potential for this level of damage (anything at a company-wide level for a publicly-traded international corporation would certainly qualify). Several departments should have reviewed the work (compliance, risk, accounting, finance, legal—almost anyone!). Samsung’s own internal compliance should have also prevented the sale of the ghost shares.

II. A Lesson in Categorical (Or Macro) Errors: Some Mistakes are Annoying, Others Are Fatal. Design to Catch and Prevent, Not Headline and Damage Control. (#dontbeaceleb)

Mistakes happen a lot when computers are involved. Sometimes it’s the user, sometimes it’s a problem in the code. But when a user catches a problem, they can assess the problem in a broader context, and determine just how bad a mistake is. A bigger mistake is just more obvious to a human than a computer.

Many years ago, a friend of mine got on a flight and found someone else sitting in his designated seat. Not wanting to cause trouble, he simply took the empty seat next to his designated one and prepared for the flight.  As the crew prepared for taxi and takeoff, a flight attendant welcomed passengers to their non-stop service to their destination city. Upon hearing this announcement, the woman next to my friend hurriedly gathered her belongings and fled the plane.

She wasn’t in the wrong seat. She was on the wrong plane.

Computer programs don’t intuitively differentiate between the severity of errors:  the wrong plane and the wrong seat are just two errors if you’ve never flown and don’t know have a broad concept of travel or the context of moving around a world. To a computer, being in the right seat is still pretty good, just like executing a financial order with the correct number is pretty good – even if the number is in the wrong field or tied to the wrong variable. What humans easily grasp, computers are often unlikely to infer. The right detail at a micro-level cannot remedy a catastrophic error at a macro-level.

User errors are inevitable. Programming errors are likely. The more we rely on computers, programs, and apps for the things that allow our lives to function, the more likely it is that our lives will be disrupted by programmer or user errors.

III. The Solution: Make The Programs Flexible, and Make Problems Fixable.

Tooth and Tail’s success is rooted in the realism of its game designers, who sacrificed dreams of a more complex game (that would have been unplayable) for the right game that fit the actual constraints and experience of the player. Designing with the actual user’s experience in mind—with special consideration for what can go wrong—is more important for project designers and programmers every day.

There is an increasing drive to try to use computers to prevent any errors, mistakes, or problems. However, these solutions only make problems worse because they decrease flexibility in and around the program. The solutions is to move in the opposite direction: programs need to play less of a role in trying to self-regulate and self-repair, while users and programmers take a larger role in guiding and overseeing the programs.

But wouldn’t this much red-tape bureaucracy be time-consuming? Wouldn’t it be inefficient to invest so much effort in a simple dividend payment? It would take time and resources, yes—but efficiency measurement is relative to scope (among other factors): it certainly appears inefficient if 6 people spend 10 minutes each to look at the same work and find no error. Here, we would conclude that a full hour of productivity was wasted. However, if 6 people took 10 minutes each and found a problem that would have cost 1,000 hours of productivity had it not been discovered, we conclude that we have a net gain of 999 hours of productivity.

Although problems like these cannot be entirely prevented or eliminated, they can be contained and managed. If a person is on the wrong plane, they can quickly determine the outcome of their choice and work on a solution. People will still get in the wrong city from time to time, but they don’t have to end up in the wrong city as a result. Similarly, employees will make occasional typos or errors in their accounting and payroll from time to time, but that doesn’t mean that financial markets have to be rocked as a result.

How can we Adjudicate Events Smeared Across Jurisdictions?

Consider this hypothetical scenario: A US doctor monitors a high-tech medical device transmitting data from inside a person visiting the UK. The doctor provides a diagnosis based on the information sent by the device. Is the doctor practicing medicine in the UK? If there is a glitch in the transmission of the data, who is liable: the doctor, the programmer, the UK telecommunications corporation whose hardware carried the data? Furthermore, in which court should the lawsuit be filed? And to extend the issue into pre-emptive policy: should programmers be subject to licensing and regulations if they are writing code for medical devices, airplanes, train switching, or other situations where a programming error can get people killed?

The metaphysical puzzle is this: where do events happen when the event can be broken into segments that happen across jurisdictions? (e.g., If you shoot someone across the border, where does the murder occur?) How can we deal with smeared, liminal events that seem literally “neither here nor there”? This is why metaphysics matters in a world where previous notions of geography, communication, and being are challenged. The technology that forces these questions upon us will arrive sooner than any of us expect and the law, the philosophy underpinning the law, and even the language used to explain that philosophy, will be trying desperately to catch up to our daily life.