will write for food

Max Barry wrote the novels Syrup, Jennifer Government, Company, Machine Man, and Lexicon. He also created the game NationStates and once found a sock full of pennies.


Thu 01

Thought for the Day

Writing If an infinite number of monkeys working on an infinite number of typewriters will eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare, a sufficiently powerful computer could auto-generate random combinations of letters, numbers, punctuation, sounds, and pixel maps, until it owns the copyright on every work of art that could ever be created.

One application of this machine would be to generate income by suing popular artists. Another would be to render all future art illegal.

Since going about your everyday life would inadvertently create an unauthorized performance of a copyrighted work, it would be illegal to do anything, at least for 120 years, except act out old books and films that had already entered the public domain.

Happy New Year!


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Machine Man subscriber Calaquin (#2434)

Location: United States
Posted: 3730 days ago

Is this the premise for your new book? If not, it should be the premise for a book.

Emily (#609)

Location: New York
Quote: "When in doubt, fuck it. When not in doubt, get in doubt!"
Posted: 3730 days ago

Ooh, how dystopian. I also think this would be an excellent premise for a book.

Ben Moss (#109)

Location: New York, NY
Posted: 3730 days ago

is this the premise for your new evil corporation? if not, it should be the premise for your new evil corporation.

david (#1793)

Location: San Diego
Posted: 3730 days ago

opening line of this short film i like from the 60s:

the laws of probability and chance indicate that if an infinate number of monkeys are given typewriters and allowed to peck away for an infinite time they will eventually produce all the world's great literature. but in the process we find monkeys, like humans, also turn out quite a bit of absolute junk.

Eric (#1896)

Location: Las Vegas, NV, USA
Posted: 3729 days ago

I'm sure this can be spun to get around it, but the flipside to the computers creating works of art that can then be used to sue future artists is that the computers would out of necessity duplicate existing copyrighted material (that the author/artist could sue the company running the computer).

Another nitpicky thing I've wondered about the monkeys and typewriters...given enough (infinite) time, don't you only need one monkey and one typewriter?

M. Kilbain Lazer (#1709)

Location: Holland
Quote: "I guess we're awesome"
Posted: 3729 days ago

What Calaquin said was exactly my idea.

towr (#1914)

Location: Netherlands
Posted: 3729 days ago

The problem with having just one monkey is that it doesn't live forever. You'd need at least two, so that they can reproduce. But the limited genepool would quickly produce freakish mutants (like hairless monkeys with brains over four times the normal size and an overinflated sense of importance). I think the safe limit is at a population of about 500 individuals.

I like the idea of creating a computer program that generates any possible future work of art (in digital form). However, the really big problem is that you need to exclude all current copyrighted works. Because you can hardly claim a right and at the same moment infringe upon it.
It is _very_ easy to write a program that can (potentially, given a universal Turing machine, and enough time) create all possible work of art; but it will inevitably be copyright infringing. The reason is that merely to be able to exclude reproducing every currently copyrighted work, you have to copy them (in a sense).
I suppose you could make a hash of every existent work, and then avoid generating works that produce the same hash. But 1) you still need to generate a work to compute the hash needed to realize that you shouldn't have generated it. 2) ignoring that, there are an infinite number of unique works with the same hash. (Although most are crap. But then, so are most of the artistic works people produce).

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 3729 days ago

I like that you guys want to explore the logistics of exactly how this ridiculous idea would work.

Let's see: the computer wouldn't need to distribute its works. In fact, that would probably be impossible, given it would possess an infinite number of them. So although it would inevitably create duplicate works, it wouldn't be distributing. It could get in trouble for falsely accusing other people of violating copyright it didn't really hold, which might happen if it used some kind of automated copyright-violation-notice-issuing system. But the penalty for this, and its own violations, would surely be far outweighed by the return from all the successful lawsuits.

(One reason I don't like this as a basis for a story is because if the situation arose, society would simply change copyright law to stop the abuse. If the computer was sufficiently powerful to prevent that happening, it wouldn't need to be generating novels to make money.)

Andrew White (#3558)

Posted: 3729 days ago

Well I think that we are still forgetting the time factor required for this. Accomplishing this feat with todays technology would require a brute force algorithm which would take many millennia to produce anything worth while. It should be noted that the computer could only create a finite amount of "artwork" within a given period of time. Thanks to our laws the computer (if it is even eligible to receive a copyright) would eventually loose the rights to them due to the maximum lifetime of a copyright. The amount copyrighted at any one given period would be insignificant in comparison to the artistic possibilities due to the fact that human languages are unrestricted by nature and writing alone would allow for an infinite amount of possibilities. Even with a quantum computer, the copyrights that the device could obtain are limited. In fact whether or not the computer could even produce a human quality artwork is questionable with the existence of the halting problem and the theory of the big crunch.

Regardless to the question of time, I think that money is the biggest limiting factor here. There is no where close to enough wealth on this planet for anyone to afford copyrighting or even recording all of the stuff that the computer would make.

dave (#3785)

Posted: 3729 days ago

what everyone has failed to grasp here is the nature of infinity, it is not just very large, it is endless, if that seems obvious consider something that helped me to put it into perspective:

imagine a lump of titanium the size of a galaxy, then imagine that every 100 trillion years a fly lands on the lump, eventually the fly will erode away all of the titanium, once this period of time has elapsed infinity has not yet even begun.

infinity is endless, so to set a computer to work to produce an infinite amount of artworks is impossible, as they could not all be created.

Dave (#3198)

Location: Pennsylvania, USA
Quote: "There is no great genius without some touch of madness."
Posted: 3729 days ago

Keep you chin up, Max (it makes it easier to hit)! I assume this means that 'The Exceptionals' will never see the light of day.

Perhaps that's the answer: re-write the classics that are already public domain. Then find 120 year old garbage and re-work that.

I've been a fan since Syrup. I remember the joy when I saw Company for the first time in the bookstore (one of the all time great works of fiction). Please don't give up writing!

Machine Man subscriber Toby O (#2900)

Location: Sydney
Quote: "You can't sell your soul to the devil if he's not buying"
Posted: 3729 days ago

I've just copyrighted the creation process (c) 2009 and saved the computer a lot of time and energy. Also all they money from those lawsuits will now flow to me.

Hobbie (#1359)

Location: Cornwall, England
Quote: "There was a little man in his hair!"
Posted: 3729 days ago

You certainly are a cheerful bugger Max. Most people settle for "Happy New Year".

I quite like what comedian Bill Bailey says about it. "If the monkey is that smart, why doesn't it write plays in a more modern idiom?"

Jeffrey (#2286)

Location: Right here
Quote: "Mathematics is a powerful language. Just look at how mathematicians destroyed the housing market."
Posted: 3729 days ago


Frédéric Meurin (#2820)

Location: France
Posted: 3728 days ago

"Since going about your everyday life would inadvertently create an unauthorized performance of a copyrighted work, it would be illegal to do anything"

Then it would be illegal to hold any legal action, and the judge and juries would not say anything that wouldn't be a copyright infrigment. If any prosecution was illegal from the very beginning, it wouldn't work : he paradox kills itself, or it needs so many changes to our actual world that it is not so big.

Happy new year anyway ! :)

towr (#1914)

Location: Netherlands
Posted: 3728 days ago

"infinity is endless, so to set a computer to work to produce an infinite amount of artworks is impossible, as they could not all be created."

It is quite easy to set a computer to work on an endless task; the fact it will not finish does not bother a computer at all. "while(true);" is sufficient to keep it busy. "while(fork());" is more fun, though.

Of course, the trick is to somehow create all works in potentia, and claim them as real. You can consider your algorithm as a compression technique, and each number 'decompresses' as a work of art. This is reversible, such that of any later work, you can say exactly what number it has in your program, and that therefore you were first. So all you need to do is claim every natural number. (Considering people are patenting large primes, this is apparently not much of a problem).

@Andrew White

"In fact whether or not the computer could even produce a human quality artwork is questionable with the existence of the halting problem and the theory of the big crunch."

The halting problem is no objection, because the program doesn't have to determine whether it gets a program as input that will halt. The only problem, as you say, is time and storage (if you want to actually create all works). Given those two, it should, inevitably, create human quality artwork though.

"Regardless to the question of time, I think that money is the biggest limiting factor here. There is no where close to enough wealth on this planet for anyone to afford copyrighting or even recording all of the stuff that the computer would make."

I think copyright is automatic; authorship is, in any case. If you make something new, it is your intellectual property, regardless of whether you registered it at any institution. However you'll need some way to prove your ownership if it comes to a trial.

Perhaps we don't need to go this far anyway. If I can claim the first page of every book, that should be enough to get a piece of the pie. And with a good grammar and dictionary, plus a bit of semantics, it is a much more tractable problem. There are an infinite number of possible sentences, sure; but only a finite number of them make sense. (Due to limits of human comprehension.)

Abgrund (#3357)

Location: Atlantis
Quote: ""Redeem your mind from the hockshops of authority." - Ayn Rand"
Posted: 3727 days ago

If there are 200 words on a page and 100,000 common words in English, there are 10^1000 possible first pages. True, the great majority of these would be gibberish, but writing a program that can screen out the gibberish is a much more difficult project (verging on impossible), and would probably screen out a lot of potentially valuable works (think of James Joyce). Even if you could run such a program, you wouldn't be able to store the pages to "prove" that you authored them first. A better strategy would be to write a program that would re-write successful novels, making random changes to thinly disguise the original characters and plot. Then you could churn out marketable, copyrightable, original works just as good as those of a great many successful authors.

Celeste (#2590)

Location: St.L. MO, USA
Quote: "You can't child-proof the world, so world-proof the child."
Posted: 3727 days ago

If I put an infinite number of roomba's on an endless piece of canvas and attach to them bottles of paint, could they eventually create all of the artwork attributed to Jackson Pollock?

seems like it would be simple. when they run out of paint, just cut the canvas into appropriate size pieces. While Jackson Pollock had a specific way of working and specific visions, there is no consensus among the experts on how to tell a Jackson Pollock from something that looks like a Jackson Pollock. Even the occassionally discovered accidental fingerprint is of no help, there is no authenticated Pollock fingerprint in existence.

He took too much of the human element out of his work, which makes him much easier to "recreate" by computer, or monkey. Unlike the work of Shakespeare and Max Barry, which actually take effort to make saleable works, instead of gibberish. But with Pollock, who's to tell?

hmmm. I wouldnt even need to claim they're Pollocks. I could just publish them in a book called "Why Roomba's Paint" and I'd make a fortune!

(by me saying this in public, is my idea copywrited, and then I can sue anyone who actually does it before me?)


towr (#1914)

Location: Netherlands
Posted: 3726 days ago

Unfortunately, people have already put their Roomba to painting. e.g. and
Although you might still be the first to make a book about it. (I don't think the idea is enough to make claims on though.)

Joe (#2270)

Location: Campbell, CA, USA
Quote: "I'm subverting the system from the inside. I think."
Posted: 3721 days ago

Jorge Luis Borges already did this story, it's called <a href="">The Library Of Babel</a>.

But it doesn't really work out because the numbers get so large so fast. If you try to store each story on a single atom, you run out of atoms in the visible universe long before you can save every possible 80-character combination.

Yenzo (#829)

Location: Secret underwater pyramid base in the Pacific
Quote: "In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe (Carl Sagan)"
Posted: 3718 days ago

Joe's right; writing every possible combination of letters is impossible, and also unnecessary. How about a genetic algorithm that determines which combinations of letters into words and words into sentences are feasible? Or an agent-based model of words competing for sense under selective pressure? The possibilities are endless. But alas, as someone already pointed out somewhere else: A million monkeys banging away on a million keyboards will not produce the complete works of Shakespeare - the internet has shown us that beyond a doubt.

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