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If you make a program to write a book, are you considered the author?

I’m sorry if this is off topic, but I couldn’t tell if that was included in the ‘on-topic’ list of acceptable questions, and I didn’t have the 5 rep to ask on philosophy meta.

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  • A writer writes or has written something. An author has published something.
    – user37981
    Oct 23, 2020 at 17:37
  • The point of the question is: if you write a program to write something, is that considered as if you wrote it? I wasn’t trying to bring a difference between writing and publishing in regards to being an author.
    – Doragon
    Oct 23, 2020 at 17:38
  • Maybe I don't understand the question, but it would seem that if you write the code that writes a book you are the "author" of both. As far as I know, "author" is not some well-defined philosophical term, outside of copyright law. If you make a picture with a camera you may not be a painter, but you are still the creator or "author" of the picture. To dig deeper, you might check out Walter Benjamin's famous essay "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." The arts are pretty used to many kinds of machine intervention by now. Oct 23, 2020 at 20:20
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    I suppose it depends on how much in the final work is owed to the program itself, how much to the language/platform in which it is written, and how much the program controls the output. If the program amounts to selecting some recursion from a list provided that generates fractal landscapes or music scores based on randomly generated values I am not sure that program's author is the work's author, or that the work is "art" that has an author at all. For a possibility of computers as authors see Hertzman's discussion in Can Computers Create Art?
    – Conifold
    Oct 23, 2020 at 21:05
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    @CharlesMSaunders Not according to the dictionary. merriam-webster.com/dictionary/author
    – user4894
    Oct 24, 2020 at 17:49

3 Answers 3

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As written, the question may be ambiguous. First, I assume that you are not asking the question in the philosophically uninteresting context of intellectual property law, or whether the program can also get the book published or not.

Are you asking whether (1) the writer of code [ a program] that is capable of writing [and does write] A [particular] book can be considered the book's author. Or do you wonder (2) whether the writer of code of a program that is capable of writing books [plural, generally] can be considered the author of all the books written by that program? While agreeing that the term "author" is to be defined, with Webster, as (A) "the writer of a literary work (such as a book)," or (B) "one that originates or creates something [published or not]." These strike me different questions.

It seems to me that an interesting and complex conundrum is posed by question (1), in the context of definition (A). As to definition B, it seems clear that the coder originated/created a program that writes books, but less clear that the coder created/authored any particular book written by the program -- notwithstanding the philosophically uninteresting tenets of intellectual property law, or whether the book was published or not.

ADDENDUM: In considering the issue, one may want to consider the distinction Aristotle made between Material Cause - the stuff out of which something is made --in the case of authorship of a literary work this may include the author's intention as manifested by his in putting particular sentences/paragraphs/chapters together (as opposed to coding syntax into a sentence or book generator), and Efficient Cause - the antecedent condition that brought the thing about (the coder is and antecedent condition to the book's existence/being written).

The legal notion of Proximate Cause might also be relevant to consider: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proximate_cause#Efficient_proximate_cause. The analogy in the present case with the legal notion of "proximate cause," though strained, might be something like "ordinary language usage" of the term "author," or the "language game" in which terms like "author," "painter" "sculptor," "painter" are used are used.

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  • Did you mean Noah Webster, not Daniel?
    – user42828
    Oct 25, 2020 at 21:09
  • I believe the key distinction is that an author is assumed to be a conscious, creative, intentional being, human or perhaps divine. So whatever artifact is generated by that being was authored by that being. The claim to authorship is only contestable when another being capable of intensions and authorship comes into the process. Someone else buys the program and generates the book, etc. In any case, the program itself can make no claims to "authorship." Oct 25, 2020 at 21:14
  • Well done @Aleksandr A. Adamov. Correction made. Thank you.
    – gonzo
    Oct 25, 2020 at 21:25
  • @ Nelson Alexander I was in the process of authoring an addendum addressing the very issue you bring up when you posted. Also, that "the program itself, or better, the code, can make no claims to "authorship" would seem to be philosophically irrelevant. It may be that these cases is sui generis and there is no "author", in the strict/proper/traditional sense. Can one say that the coder of a three D printer's program whose function is to print, say, human busts is the sculptor of all busts printed? Who is the videographer of surveilnce vids taken by a camera fixed to a post.
    – gonzo
    Oct 25, 2020 at 21:40
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There is a more general question of whether AI could create intellectual property, which is now actively discussed in the legal world. Here's an article about whether AI should be considered an inventor in some cases: https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/01/08/102298/ai-inventor-patent-dabus-intellectual-property-uk-european-patent-office-law/ As it points out, there's a related question whether animals should be able to get intellectual property, such as in the case of the "monkey selfie". https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2018/04/monkey-selfie-lawsuit-finally-ends-court-affirms-adorable-macaque-cant-sue/

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I think the obvious and pragmatic answer to this question is: Who gets paid by the publisher? You seem to be thinking about 'writing a book' as the simple, technical task of putting words down in grammatically correct forms, which even a decent non-AI computer could likely be programmed to do. But being an author involves more than simply writing words, much of which is specifically social tasks: choosing publications to submit to; negotiating a fee; receiving and reviewing editorial suggestions, and editing and rewriting weak sections; deciding on publication formats, a title, cover images, and other frillery; even deciding what to spend the received money on. A machine that could do all these things — heck a machine that could simply argue it has right to do such things — would probably have to be accepted as an intelligence and be credited as an author. A machine that cannot is just a tool doing the technical task of writing sentences, and credit of authorship ought to go to the programmer.

It may seem paradoxical, but one of the defining features of a human-level intelligence is that it has the capacity to recognize that it is not being treated as a human-level intelligence, and to object to that condition. It's meaningless to talk about the intrinsic 'human' rights of anything that lacks the level of self-reference necessary to complain that its own intrinsic rights are being violated.

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  • If the author doesn’t copyright his work, and someone else does, that other person would be the one negotiating the publisher’s fee, no?
    – Doragon
    Oct 25, 2020 at 1:27
  • @Doragon: Sure. But the original author can contest it, if he thinks it's unfair to him. Don't take that specific statement quite so literally; this is philosophy site. Oct 25, 2020 at 2:46
  • I know, I was just contesting the definition that the author is the one who gets paid.
    – Doragon
    Oct 25, 2020 at 2:47
  • @Doragon: I know that, too. 😀 but in context, I didn't mean 'gets paid' as the simple technical action of getting a check; I meant 'gets paid' as a socially intensive interaction of seeking out and arranging payment. Oct 25, 2020 at 2:53
  • I still don’t think that payment is a fair way to determine the author, since before he contests and regains copyright is he not the author? Also for plagiarized work, should the person who plagiarized the work be considered the true author? Until he’s found out, he’s getting the money.
    – Doragon
    Oct 25, 2020 at 3:48

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