Illegal Numbers: Can Sharing a Number Be Against the Law?

March 9, 2016 | Elizabeth Knowles

Photo credit: pixabay.com

More importantly, can you break the law without knowing it?

Math is a language; you can use it to describe situations and ideas, and solve problems. It can also do things that a regular language can’t like encode a message or a picture. In the Numberphile video below, mathematician James Grime explains how some numbers can be illegal, simply because of what they represent.


In 2001, a prime number was found that when used the right way, in binary notation, could correspond to code that would let you bypass copy protection on a DVD. Although it is just a number, it became illegal because of what it represents and what people can do with it.

Interestingly enough, pretty much anything can be turned into a number. The Mona Lisa, a company’s trademarked name, or the secret recipe for your grandmother’s soup — you name it! So does that mean that anytime you write a list of numbers you could be using an illegal one? Technically, yes. However, if the intent isn’t there, you might be off the hook.

Grime brings up some really interesting points. Say the number 32 were illegal, could you put 31 on a list without breaking the law? What if you wrote out a whole list of illegal numbers, but just subtracted 1 from each of them. Would that be illegal?

SEE ALSO: Netflix to Crack Down on Proxy Streaming

This isn’t all entirely hypothetical either. Companies can sue you for distributing a number that they consider that they have proprietary rights to, and this actually happened in 2011. Sony sued George Hotz and members of fail0verflow, and part of their lawsuit involved a complaint that they had distributed PS3 keys.

“Making security codes widely available constitutes copyright infringement and computer fraud,” Sony argues according to Daily Mail.

Numbers can also be written in hexadecimal form, which also corresponds to a color. So, if you were to share an image that contained the color from of an illegal number, would that image become illegal? It gets a little crazy when you start to think about all the ways in which you could be breaking the law — even unintentionally. Numbers can also be converted into music; watch the video below to see what Pi sounds like. Luckily for this musician, he won a legal battle determining that you can’t copyright Pi and that he is entitled to share his music.


You might also like: 6 Odd Facts About Numbers That Sound Too Crazy to Be True

Hot Topics

Facebook comments