‘it is just a number, and numbers aren’t protectable’ drivel

(A belated rant on a certain number, and responses thereto.)

From Ed Felten’s comments:

And it proves again that the lawyers fail to see something very important. . . . _everything_ in the internet _is_ equivalent to a number. In the mathematical sense. You can transform it as often as you want, it is still equivalent to a number. And numbers are ethereal, they always existed, and will always exist. You cannot destroy them, and you cannot — brace yourselves, IP advocates — invent them. Therefore you cannot protect them either.

From LWN’s comments:

A number is a number. A number is not a product. (Well, maybe this one is, because it’s not prime, but never mind that.) A number is not a service. A number is not a device. A number is not a component. A number is not part of a component.

This is pure drivel, people. Yes, I can represent any idea – any information- in a number. So what? Numbers are not magical and mystical; there is no part of the constitution that says ‘numbers cannot be protected by intellectual property law.’ What matters – what can be protected- is the meaning which humans are able to imbue in and draw from those numbers. We humans have imbued that particular number with a meaning, and as a result, we’ve decided to protect it.

Or to put it another way- locksmiths use numeric codes to replicate keys. Access to those code books is restricted. If someone gave the numeric code for your front door key, along with your address, to a criminal, would you say ‘well, it is just a number, I guess I shouldn’t try to do anything about it’? No, you’d do just what you’d do if the criminal had been given a physical key- you’d change the locks. Again, it is the idea that the number represents- the key- which is what is important, not the number. And so we can protect it or restrict it as we please- to do otherwise would be insane.

Now, I’m pretty sure that giving this particular number legal protection is a bad idea. But that has nothing to do with whether or not it is a number. Anyone who thinks otherwise… oy. Repeat to yourself: all data is a number and all physical keys are numbers, and that doesn’t stop us from patenting, copyright, and otherwise protecting keys and data. HD-DVD keys are no different- it may not be good policy, but it is very clearly the policy we’ve got, regardless of whether or not something is ‘just a number.’