Scott Aaronson’s Outreach Program

What’s that sound? Could it be the information content of the popular discourse about quantum physics rising by a detectable degree?

Oh, dear. An advertising agency took a passage from Scott Aaronson’s quantum computing lecture notes and used it in a commercial.

Model 1: But if quantum mechanics isn’t physics in the usual sense — if it’s not about matter, or energy, or waves — then what is it about?

Model 2: Well, from my perspective, it’s about information, probabilities, and observables, and how they relate to each other.

Model 1: That’s interesting!

Naturally, the commercial doesn’t mention where they got the text from, but thanks to the quintessential Internet appeal of this story, it looks like Prof. Aaronson is already getting some server-crashing free publicity out of this. Should he be demanding more? Like, say, private tutoring sessions with the fashion models who show such an interest in quantum theory? Each of them have already shown a far greater command of the material than, for example, Deepak Chopra, and it would be a shame to waste such an opportunity.

You can read the ad agency’s craven response in this Sydney Morning Herald article:

Mr Campbell said the Copyright Act in Australia only protects ‘literary work’ and provides “a defence for accidental or incidental reproductions of works in a television commercial”.

“A short extract from an entire lecture, being only one sentence, is unlikely to be considered a literary work or a substantial reproduction of the lecture itself,” he said.

“Even if the extract was considered to be substantial enough in its own right to be considered a literary work, there is also a reasonable argument that its reproduction is incidental. In other words, its content is not pertinent or relevant to the storyline of the commercial or the product being promoted.”

We specialists call that kind of talk “total bollocks.” The entire “storyline” of the commercial is “two models talk about quantum mechanics.” Therefore, the extract from the lecture is extremely pertinent. As Greg Egan said, if a commercial showed two construction workers singing a verse from a pop song, the advertisers would have to pay royalties for the song, even if the commercial wasn’t promoting something mentioned in the song or if any other pop song would do.

This AdNews story repeats the same spin, but says that Love Communications has contacted Prof. Aaronson via e-mail and telephone to, ahem, “apologise for any distress or disruption caused.”

Free legal advice from a blog is worth, of course, less than the paper it’s printed on. Still, if this were an American commercial, Love Communications would get a big demerit for using Aaronson’s words for a commercial purpose, even though they used only a small portion of his material and didn’t materially affect his ability to profit from his own creation. Hooray for US Fair Use rules. However, I hardly have a clue what he could do through the Australian courts. Apparently, the 1968 Copyright Act was extended to Berne Convention countries in 1969, meaning (maybe) that he could sue in Australian courts, either for breach of copyright or to assert his moral right of attribution.

You know, maybe Love Communications has found a new way to make their ad videos “go viral.”

4 thoughts on “Scott Aaronson’s Outreach Program”

  1. Scotty has been robbed. :(

    Given how much Scott incorporation his Jewish heritage into his personal aesthetics, one is almost tempted to say that they “Jewed” him out of attribution for his material. But that would be mean.

  2. More and more, I’m thinking this would be a great way to start a viral ad campaign. If the video itself were better (i.e., worth watching on its own merits, with some entertainment value), then all you’d have to do would be to air the commercial without attribution and wait for the Internet outcry. Slashdot notices, tens of thousands of people watch your advert — and then you take cap in hand and blame it on an internal mix-up. Release the other version of the ad you’ve had secretly waiting in the wings, the version with proper attribution, and strike a deal with Scott. He hasn’t suffered monetary damages, per se, since his stuff has always been available for free; so, you shouldn’t have to fork out too much in order to soothe the aggrieved. When you do this, you get a double bonus: the good will of the Internet, plus a second round of publicity.

    But the video, as you say, sucks.

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