An object has been assembled by artists I know that presents a fascinating set of conundrums about the relationships between quantum physics, shredders, random surprises, the value of art, and copyright law. Seems fantastical, right? And so it is. The object of concern is a metal box a little under four feet tall, about eighteen inches deep, and a bit less than three feet wide. The box is welded together along all twelve of its edges. It has an opening across one side. And there is a small control panel on top.
Before the box was welded shut, a set of objects was placed inside. The objects include a shredder with a “switch” of sorts that makes it operate, but only one time. That single time is triggered by insertion of an art work in the slit on the side of the box. The shredder in the box will then run, but in a way that makes it impossible for any observer watching when the art work is inserted to tell whether the art actually runs through the shredder. In all cases, the shredder will make appropriate shredding sounds to prevent humans from figuring out what occurs. The art work enters the box and disappears from view. The box will then contain either a shredded piece of art or an intact art work, along with an inert shredder. The only way to discover what occurs after the art work is inserted in the slit is to open up and thereby destroy the box and any copyrightable expression it and its contents represents.
This delightful object forces us to ponder some intriguing puzzles. Its invisible randomness begs us to play with the artistic relevance of quantum mechanics and the famous Schrödinger’s Cat physics conundrum, to take some jibes at Banksy’s now infamous 2018 shredding of half his Girl With Balloon composition immediately after Sotheby’s auction hammer fell marking its sale for well over a million dollars, to think about the endpoint status of a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work containing unknown artistic contents and a mechanical device that becomes inoperable after a single use, to grapple with what really makes art valuable, and to force some rethinking about the contours of intellectual property law in the United States. This essay takes up these challenges.
QUANTUM COPYRIGHT LAW: SCHRÖDINGER’S CAT, BANKSY’S SHREDDER, AND ART ON THE EDGE,
Nw. J. Tech. & Intell. Prop.