If I loaded a copy of Toy Story into my video editor and cut it up to change it into a story where Woody actually killed Buzz Lightyear and is subsequently executed for it by Sid, agent of justice, this would obviously be a derivative work that I could not legally share with the world.

But what if I just wrote down and published the steps that I went through to produce my version, in such a way that another person could easily replicate it on their own copy of Toy Story? Like:

  • Remove 0:33:43.00 - 0:33:48.12
  • Insert scream.wav from Hank's Free Sound Kit at 0:55:32.04."
  • Etc

Would those instructions themselves be a derivative work? Or be illegal for any other reason, e.g. because they are instructions for an infringing act? If so, what's the difference between that, and a YouTube tutorial on changing a specific dress (with copyrighted design) into a mini skirt (which I presume would be allowed)?

But, assuming this is legal, how far can we stretch this concept? What if instead of writing manual steps, I create and distribute a computer program that automatically performs them on any copy of Toy Story the user provides? Would the convenience this provides affect how it is viewed? And what about that it no longer gives the user the option to interpret the steps differently, for creative or legal reasons?

What if the program requires a very specific byte-for-byte copy from a legal source, like "all files in the VIDEO_TS folder of the Director's Cut DVD, PAL edition, batch #6588"? You could argue that indicates I have likely performed said steps myself and produced a derivative work, even if I haven't distributed said work.

What if the required file is from an illegally distributed torrent release?

This is getting technical, but what if I just XOR my edited version with some other large file, say an Ubuntu ISO, and publish the resulting key? Another person could XOR that key with the Ubuntu ISO (which they can download freely) to get Toy Story: Buzzkill.

On the one hand, the key could be described as a long list of instructions to turn one thing into another, no different from the initial concept. But on the other hand, it could be viewed as just a very weird form of encryption, and should be no more legal than just publishing my movie as a password-protected (thus encrypted) ZIP file.

Where do you think the line is drawn?

  • Welcome to Law.SE. You might want to take the tour. In particular, StackExchange Q&A are usually one question per posting. You ran through a lot of hypotheticals in this one. But someone already posted an answer. Commented May 18, 2022 at 20:23
  • @Mindwin Thanks! I would say they are sub-questions. The one question that defines this posting is the last one: "Where do you think the line is drawn?". The posted answer unfortunately doesn't quite go into the subject matter as described in the title (which is my fault, I worded the question badly). Commented May 18, 2022 at 20:32

1 Answer 1


A description of how to do something is itself an independent creative work, and is protected by copyright. E.g. if you write a program that controls a milling machine, that program is protected no matter what the input object is.

If you use a device, of any sort, to change a copyright-protected object in any manner, you have created a "derivative work", therefore subject to the various exceptions to copyright protection, you need permission to create that work. If you buy a physical photograph, the artwork is protected, but because you own the actual copy of the photograph, you can grind it up or otherwise deface it.

If you scan and OCR a physical book, and then convert it into online html text after running it through Google Translate to get a Finnish version of the text, you are creating a derivative work: you have to have permission. If doesn't matter if you think up this way of creating a work, or if you follow someone else's instructions.

Suppose you roll the bits of the file 2 left: then a casual observer would probably think "Binary garbage, what's the point of that?". You might evade detection, but it is still the illegal creation of a derivative work. There is only technically a difference between infringing on copyright, and infringing on copyright without getting caught.

  • 1
    Sure, the person applying the steps (whether manually or via the program) is creating a derivative work, but what about my creating and distributing of the steps themselves? Are they a derivative work, or at least some kind of infringement? I could've worded that part of the question better. Have improved it now. Commented May 18, 2022 at 19:38
  • Upon further reading, your first paragraph seems to imply that they are, indeed, not. Would you say that the line is drawn at the XOR situation then? As in, that one is illegal, the options above it aren't. Commented May 18, 2022 at 21:05
  • 1
    "If doesn't matter if you think up this way of creating a work, or if you follow someone else's instructions." In context, it is clear that you mean "how to" instructions, but, of course, if someone violates copyright law acting as your agent or you solicit a criminal violation of copyright law, in another sense of the word "instructions" you can have liability for instructing someone to do something unlawful on your behalf.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented May 18, 2022 at 21:57
  • @ohwilleke ah yes, instructions is still an ambiguous term, but indeed, I mean the "how to" instructions. So in that case those are not soliciting by themselves? law.stackexchange.com/a/551/45166 seems to confirm that for the US (which I'm assuming is the jurisdiction this answer applies to). Commented May 19, 2022 at 17:09
  • @BartvanHeukelom: The first-sale doctrine implies that somebody who lawfully purchases a copyrighted work may do almost anything they like with that copy that does not involve duplication or public performance, without requiring any permission from the copyright holder. So if I were to suggest that someone who bought a 35 millimeter print of Phantom Menace and some other film could improve it by cutting them in various places and splicing them together in a particular sequence, and someone were to do that and watch the spliced film for their own enjoyment, no infringement would be involved.
    – supercat
    Commented May 31 at 16:10

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .