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Another thought on the Astrolabe copyright thing

Fri 7 Oct 2011 by mskala Tags used: ,

It may have been inevitable that this or something like it would happen, because the astrological community has a long history of making extralegal claims on factual information. Many algorithms have been published in books with copyright notices claiming that if you implement the algorithms, then you can only use the resulting software for non-profit purposes. That's a transparent attempt to claim software patent protection (inherently questionable already) without having a patent at all, using copyright law as the basis instead, so as to get the much longer term and lack of review applicable to copyrights instead of patents.

Information about the circumstances under which a specific person such as a celebrity was born ("data" in the technical sense of the term as used by astrologers) is obviously factual information: it has no creative component, I don't have the option to use someone else's "interpretation" or one I might create myself instead of the one correct one if I want to erect a natal chart for the person involved, and this kind of information quite reasonably is not subject to copyright claims. But publishers of astrological databases make not only the (highly questionable) claim of "database copyright" on their compilations, but also on every individual fact therein. If you cast a chart using an item of data from a commercial database, it's claimed that you incur obligations like buying a more expensive class of license should you publish your chart commercially. And the damned thing about it is that the astrological community has for decades accepted and propagated these kinds of claims, giving them a sort of legitimacy that's independent of their legal validity or lack thereof. Read the copyright notice to any popular astrological software to see the list of absurdly overboard copyright claims by predecessors that the authors of the current software are trying to obey.

Given that people in the astrological community not only routinely make such claims, but also routinely treat such claims by others as legitimate, it's no surprise that Astrolabe would file the lawsuit they have. It's quite likely that just like anime fans with "legal fansubs," and just like Harry Potter fans with "fiction can't possibly be child pornography," Astrolabe truly believes that the customs of their community actually are the laws of the broader society; and then it's no big surprise that they found a lawyer willing to humour them on that point and take their money. The best outcome of this case would be if Astrolabe could fall hard enough for it to be a wake-up call to the astrological community that overbroad patent-masquerading-as-copyright claims really are not the law and should not be taken seriously.

It is largely because of this kind of nonsense that most of the astrological software I've published is public domain, whereas I'd retain copyright and use a free license for most other kinds of software. There are too many, and too broad, copyright claims in this community already and I don't want to add to the mess.


Hear! Hear! Ten thumbs up and whatever else I can do convey an enthusiastic cheer. This attitude of the astrological community has worried me for many years. I once asked an intellectual property lawyer about the validity of claiming birth data as property and her laughter almost blew me away from the phone.

The really important thing is that while we claim to be a science - pardon me, correction, some of us avoid the concept "science" like the plague but we all want astrology to be taken as some kind of serious study - too few of us accept the concomitant responsibility of sharing relevant information. You can't be a respectable discipline on one hand, and on the other hand treat data like commercial goods. I think the attitude comes from the socio-economic position of astrologers. Let's face it: most of us, qua astrologers, are not well off. There is no incentive, as there is in other disciplines rich in grants, research assistants, entire floors of well stocked library shelves, paid trips to conferences, and so on, to share the information which some of us have laboured long hours, weeks, and years to gather. So we act like squirrels burying nuts. It is sad.
Axel - 2011-10-07 11:05
I myself am more inclined toward promoting the idea of astrology as an art rather than a science, though it certainly has elements of both. Art created by human beings may bne more reasonably subject to copyright than facts that are merely discovered. But I support only weak intellectual property protection for art too! And to the extent that astrology involves factual information and things like algorithms that are bigger than human beings, I think those things should not be subject to human property claims at all.

Should Witte and his intellectual descendants be able to claim property rights over astrological use of the "Uranian planets"? What about Lowell and Pluto? We are likely to get into several kinds of trouble if we care too strongly about exactly where we draw the line between creation and discovery.
Matt - 2011-10-07 12:17
Astrology certainly has elements of both art and science. What comes out in the end is art, but it is based on a mathematical map that a wise astrologer will strive to understand. I know a painter who reads about the technology of making oils and grinds his own pigments. I like that.
Axel - 2011-10-07 17:06
Ah, it is an old relationship, ars/techne . . . but it is not that old an argument : nature/culture; cooked/raw; art/science; etc. . . . it is really only a couple of millennia of dialectic . . . as for astrology it is absolutely validated by the mundane and human experience. Science? hmmm Art? hmmm how about neither OR both/and. I like neither.
Erin - 2011-10-07 17:30
This goes in an off-topic direction as far as this post is concerned, but ... Matt, what exactly do you mean when you claim that astrology contains elements of science? (I suspect I know the answer already, but perhaps there is room for surprise.)
Algirdas - 2011-10-07 22:31
Astrological theories are at least in part derived from observation. One of the ways[*] of finding out what something like "Moon in Virgo" means is to go look at a bunch of people who have that indication and figure out what else they have in common and what they don't share with persons who don't have that indication. Part of astrological practice is to make and test hypotheses about such things. That's similar to the scientific method - and unsurprising considering the historical connection between science and astrology.

[*] Some astrologers would claim that's the only legitimate way to determine the astrological meaning of an indication. I'm not in their camp myself, which is why I tend to emphasize qualifiers like "part of" and "similar to" throughout these kinds of discussions, instead of flatly asserting that astrology is a science (which some people do assert).
Matt - 2011-10-07 23:09
Of course you also need to know a fair bit of orbital mechanics, astronomical coordinate systems, and so on in order to perform astrological calculations at all - and it's generally uncontroversial to call those things "science." But that's probably not the question you were interested in.
Matt - 2011-10-07 23:13
Ah, I was guilty of oversimplifying. Of course between the mathematical geometry of orbits and house systems on one hand and the artistic delivery on the other (not unlike the artistic performance of a good physician) there is the interface where we plod on, wondering whence comes the effect of "Moon in Virgo". Everything interesting is always in the interface. That part of astrology resembles sociology and psychology and even history, which many fans of hard science deny are sciences at all. In practice, astrologers mess around with their ancient or modern books, their colleagues, and their own experiences until they settle on a personal praxis. It's all that can be done for now until we discover what are the astrological atoms that are worth investigating.
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