IT Futures

University of Edinburgh

Burkhard Schafer


“Johnny Five” needs input: legal issues of automated database access for research and teaching


One of the most endearing depictions of a robot in popular fiction is surely Johnny Five, star of the Short Circuit films. Although programmed with the ability to learn, he initially lacks the right type of knowledge base to interact properly with his environment and human beings. This changes when the romantic lead of the film, Stephanie, gives him access to her books, including an encyclopaedia. Speed-reading through the pages, Johnny Five not only acquires the information contained in them, but also a personality that is shaped by the type of literature he has been given. But what would the legal situation have been, had this occurred in real life? Is Johnny’s behavior compliant with copyright and data protection law? Or do his actions make him a criminal who should be disassembled?


As we surround ourselves increasingly with (more or less) autonomous and (more or less) intelligent automata, access to and use rights of databases takes on a new poignancy. Is machine learning sufficiently similar to human learning that the same privileges that copyright law gives educational settings should apply? Can automation help the research process, and what legal issues does it raise? Do we need a “fourth law of robotics”, codified and computational representations of the relevant legal provisions, to reap all the benefits that automation of access to databases can give us? Looking at some recent initiatives to facilitate data sharing in research contexts, such as the European IMI-EMIF project, the talk discusses the copyright and Data protection issues that these initiatives create, and suggests some solutions that require more substantial collaboration between lawyers, ethicists and computer scientists.


Burkhard studied Theory of Science, Logic, Theoretical Linguistics, Philosophy and Law at the Universities of Mainz, Munich, Florence and Lancaster. His main field of interest is the interaction between law, science and computer technology, especially computer linguistics. How can law, understood as a system, communicate with systems external to it, be it the law of other countries (comparative law and its methodology) or science (evidence, proof and trial process).






















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