Say I've made a photograph.

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that this is a valuable work of art

I am now the copyright holder of that particular image. I am using this picture on a personal website where I am talking about plants. Now somebody else wants to create a database with pictures of plants in it. Instead of making a picture themselves or paying for the right to use a picture they simply use mine without permission.

As far as I understand this would be a copyright violation and I would be able to use the law against them. At the very least force them to stop using my picture.

But what if they do not actually use my picture in any way that is viewable to human beings? They may very well decide to store the image data in a textual representation equal to the binary string of the original file. This is what it might look like:

11111111 11011000 11111111 11100000 00000000 00010000 01001010 01000110 
01001001 01000110 00000000 00000001 00000001 00000001 00000000 01100000 
00000000 01100000 00000000 00000000 11111111 11100001 00000000 00100010     
01000101 01111000 01101001 01100110 00000000 00000000 01001101      ...
...      ...      ...      ...      ...      ...      ...           ...
...      00111001 00011100 11010100 10001110 11000111 11111111 11011001 

Their database is being read by computer algorithms that can easily read the binary representation and transform it back into a format that can be used for image searches and similar procedures.

I would assume this is still a copyright violation, but is the law actually smart enough to understand this? Is every possible pattern of bits that could somehow be transformed back into my original image protected under copyright? Does it matter how the data is being used?

I am most interested in what the law would look like in both the united states and the EU.

1 Answer 1


The law is smart enough to understand this, because the law is interpreted by humans so is to be interpretable to understand this. In the US, 17 USC 106 states the core principle:

Subject to sections 107 through 122, the owner of copyright under this title has the exclusive rights to do and to authorize any of the following: (1) to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords...

In describing what you may not do without permission as "reproducing", the law transcends the level of minutia that would be required to say exactly what it means to "reproduce" a work.

It has not been a legal issue whether one infringes if one copies a book, setting the text in a different typeface. It also has not been a legal issue whether it is infringement if you change one of the works when you copy it, thereby making a certain copy not a verbatim copy, although there has been a popular meme for years that you can circumvent copyright law if you change a few words. It has been an issue to determine what standards are to be applied when two works could have been independently created but have some similarity that suggests the possibility of copying. In the realm of digital representations, the law sees through the physical format of a work, and looks for "the expression".

  • You mean if you change one word? (did you copy this answer and change one letter? :) Commented Feb 25, 2020 at 17:59
  • No, work; rephrased.
    – user6726
    Commented Feb 25, 2020 at 18:29
  • But how well would this actually hold up in court? How about claiming this is simply a coincidence? Because the picture only appears if interpreted in a very specific way that is not obvious to everyone. How would one go about proving fault?
    – Nic.Star
    Commented Feb 26, 2020 at 7:42
  • Then the two sides would bring in experts to testify as to the likelihood that a sequence of 1's and 0's also happens to look like a work of art, when interpreted as a jpg, by accident.
    – user6726
    Commented Feb 26, 2020 at 15:35
  • Another meme that I heard was that by changing a few words in an old works you can create a new works that falls under copyright protection again. At least you would not be laughed out of court immediately when the original's copyright protection runs out, and I copy a new, just slightly modified version.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 18:06

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