Colour and Bits

While researching for my group poster project on copyright and libraries, I came across this article. Matthew Skala makes some very interesting points regarding the “colour” of information. I found it very interesting that if you look at digital information from a technologists point of view, two things with identical bits are identical, though if you look at them from a librarian’s point of view they are two distinct things and cannot be considered equal. What was also interesting is the idea that from a technologists point of view, copyright is basically impossible.

To a computer scientist, on the other hand, bits are bits are bits and it is absolutely fundamental that two identical chunks of bits cannot be distinguished.  Colour does not exist.  I’ve seen computer people claim (indeed, one did this to me just today in the very discussion that inspired this posting) that copyright law inescapably leads to nonsense conclusions like “If I own copyright on one thing, and copyright inherits through XOR, then I own copyright on everything because everything can be obtained from my one thing by XORing it with the right file.” (Skala, 2004)

My undergraduate degree is in engineering, so I studied a lot of math and physics. In both of those subjects, as long as you have all the right variables in an equation in the proper relationships, then a²+b²=c² is the same as b²+a²=c² and the same as b²=c²-a². So, I can see how two things with identical bits (even in different orders) can be indistinguishable which means that I sometimes have trouble with arguments about digital vs print because if the content is the same then there is no difference. With almost a full semester of library school behind me, however, I still have trouble explaining how numbers and math are Coloured but I have no problem with understanding the Colour of books, digital items, and information.

I hope you read this article, because I found it really interesting.

Skala, M. (2004, June 10). What colour are your bits?. In Ansuz: People before principles.


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I am a teen librarian. I am a learner of things and a doer of doings.

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