Copyright on chess moves - shadows on the wall?

| 0 | Chess Event Coverage
Copyright on chess moves - shadows on the wall?Last week, ChessBase was apparently 'forced to cease Internet broadcasting of the Topalov-Kamsky match'. As we noted in our report on the first match game, live broadcasting of the chess moves in this match without permission was prohibited by the Bulgarian Chess Federation (although they didn't seem to have a problem with Chessdom's, Crestbook's, ICC's and TWIC's live coverage). This has led to heated discussions on this site. The key question here is: can you copyright a chess move at all?

The above quoted article on the official match site doesn't address this question: it merely gives an overview of the actions which were taken by the lawyers of the parties involved. It ends with a quote from the president of the BCF, Stefan Sergiev:
This is a precedent in the world of chess and we are grateful to attorney Polzin for his assistance. This case will serve as a lesson to everybody who violates the copyright law.
Well, perhaps, but without concrete arguments (instead of words of barely concealed triumph) it all remains very mysterious. And it's such an interesting question! You can look at it from a legal point of view, from a philosophical point of view and from a historicial point of view. The very fact that it has been debated since the rise of professional chess (over 150 years ago) as this thorough overview by Edward Winter shows, indicates the complexity of the question. You should really just read the whole piece yourself, but let me just quote what Capablanca had to say about the matter:
A chess game, from its very nature and the manner of its production, must be the joint property of the two persons producing it ... You can charge what you like for the publication of the games in any form you may deem to your advantage. But, unfortunately, that is a common privilege, of which anyone may take advantage.
Capablanca's opinion raises the question what this 'very nature' of a chess game is, exactly. Basically, a chess move seems to be information. But what kind of information? That's a philosophical question, and it has obvious consequences for copyright issues. I like Macauley Peterson's definition of moves becoming 'factual events in the world', but I don't think it's so easy to say that because of this, there can't be copyright on them. In fact, there's a whole branch of copyright theory that deals with this question. To quote the Wikipedia article:
There are many other philosophical questions which arise in the jurisprudence of copyright. They include such problems as determining when one work is "derived" from another, or deciding when information has been placed in a "tangible" or "material" form.
This seems to go to the heart of the matter. What is a chess move, apart from a physical act ('event') by one player moving pieces on a board? Is it a 'thing'? A thought? Does it exist somewhere in time or space? When I think of a chess move in Amsterdam (say 1.e4), is it somehow different from Topalov thinking that same move in Sofia? Does it change by him actually playing that move? Anyway, aren't all thoughts free?

From a legal point of view, I haven't been able to find any laws or jurisprudence on the this matter, even though many commenters have said that there are certainly laws that deal with this question. But what laws exactly? In the Topalov-Kamsky case, are we dealing with Bulgarian law? With EU regulations? Or, in ChessBase's case, even with German law (as the article on the match site seems to imply)? Things are, in my view, complicated by the fact that we're dealing with broadcasts on the internet: in other words, in a global, virtual environment.

The whole copyright discussion has changed heavily since the rise of the Internet. A very interesting speech (and following discussion) by Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software or GNU Project. which he held at MIT some years ago, deals in a fundamental way with many of the issues of copyright and the new virtual world. His point of view, too, has many shades of grey, as the following excerpt shows:
[I]nstead of increasing copyright powers, we have to pull them back so as to give the general public a certain domain of freedom where they can make use of the benefits of digital technology, make use of their computer networks. But how far should that go? That's an interesting question because I don't think we should necessarily abolish copyright totally. The idea of trading some freedoms for more progress might still be an advantageous trade at a certain level, even if traditional copyright gives up too much freedom. But in order to think about this intelligently, the first thing we have to recognize is, there's no reason to make it totally uniform. There's no reason to insist on making the same deal for all kinds of work.

The discussion about the difference between a textual representation of a move (or a game) and the actual live broadcast of the game on, for instance, Playchess or ICC (or indeed here on ChessVibes), reminds me a bit of Plato's Theory of Forms and his famous Allegory of the Cave: isn't a chess broadcast merely a 'shadowy projection' of the Idea of a chess game? And isn't it silly to worry about these projections which are, after all, merely a weak reflection of the Truth?

Platco's Cave

Engraving of Plato's Cave, 1604

Of course, the matter will be (and has been) discussed over and over again on the internet and beyond. We have actually mentioned it before on ChessVibes as a commentary on the popular Monroi gadget. I do not want to formulate a definite opinion (yet). I've just tried to collect some links throwing (I hope) various lights on the matter. Have a look at them. I hope you will agree with me that, really, things are never that simple.

More from CM ArnieChipmunk
Why chess will never be popular

Why chess will never be popular

In praise of draws

In praise of draws