Happy birthday Isaac Asimov! Three Laws of Robotics and The Last Question…

Happy birthday Isaac Asimov! Three Laws of Robotics and The Last Question…

Isaac Asimov On Throne
Happy birthday Isaac Asimov! Biochemist and Sci-Fi author Isaac Asimov was born today in 1920, wrote tons of Sci-Fi books capturing the imaginations of millions, and perhaps best known by makers for his creation of the “Three Laws of Robotics”:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

My favorite “maker” science fiction story of all time is from Isaac Asimov, it’s a short story called “The Last Question” so I’ve included it here. Read it from the beginning, the ending is epic! There’s also a comic and site devoted to this story. Update: There is some debate in the comments if it’s ok for the 3 rules, parts of this story to be posted or linked to.

34 thoughts on “Happy birthday Isaac Asimov! Three Laws of Robotics and The Last Question…

  1. Allen Varney says:

    “It’s a short story so I’ve included it here.” How wonderful that O’Reilly Media seems immune to, or at least profoundly unconcerned with, trivial issues of copyright and the permission of the author’s estate. Info wants to be free, right?

  2. Phillip Torrone says:

    @Allen Varney – you can blame me for posting about this, not oreilly media – i understand your comment. if i’m asked to take the parts i posted down i will of course, but it seems that this is something was released to the public? i’ve seen this story on hundreds of sites and newsgroups for the last decade+ a comic was made from it, translated, spoken in public, youtube videos, i’ve seen it collections of short stories in every place imaginable – from what i recall this story was put out there after it went out of print from 1956. it was adapted for planetariums and it has been read on the BBC and other science programs many times, there are sites devoted to it with the complete story posted. i don’t see the harm of sharing some of this wonderful story or linking to it, but i understand that it doesn’t matter sometimes to some folks. if i’m told to remove what i posted, i will, are you going to contact the dozens of other places that link to it too?

  3. Allen Varney says:

    Well then, if it’s been posted on hundreds of newsgroups and websites, what further proof does a trained journalist need that this story is in public domain? In fact, I’ll bet it’s on BitTorrent too! Given that, there’s no need to verify the story’s copyright status before plunging ahead; that’s what any newsstand magazine would do. Once it’s on the internet, copyright doesn’t apply, right? And I’m sure O’Reilly Media has legal counsel anyway.

  4. Phillip Torrone says:

    @allen, what would satisfy you? removing some of the text and linking to all the places this story appears online? i’m more than happy to address feedback from a reader. how much text should stay, what links should be on the site? are you going to contact all those other sites?

    the publisher of the story from over 50 years ago does not appear to be in business, you cannot buy the story.

    this isn’t a story i am putting in a print magazine, i am not charging for viewing it or anything that would damage the rights holder to make money.

    it’s a small bit of text, it does not appear on bittorrent (that’s a protocol not really a destination, the bittorrent.com site has mostly video content).

  5. jblaschke says:

    Phillip, you should know better than using “everyone else is doing it too” as justification. If it means so much to you to re-post the story here for an author you respect so much, you could easily have contacted Asimov’s estate for permission. Email me and I’ll be happy to send you the relevant contact info.

    1. bob kiely says:

      Just stumbled upon his blog while searching for contact info for the Asimov estate for permission to use the “3 rule of robotics” in a script I am doing. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks

  6. Allen Varney says:

    It’s not a matter of “what will satisfy me,” but of rudimentary ninth-grade familiarity with legalities that directly affect your job. In these last few hours before you get fired, you might browse copyright attorney David Amkraut’s “7 Deadly Myths of Internet Copyright,” of which you have already asserted three:


    You might even look at the US Copyright Office’s FAQ:


    But these won’t address your fundamental lack of awareness that, to professional publishers like O’Reilly Media, copyright matters. I expect this will shortly be made clear to you, forcefully.

    Welcome to the grownup world.

  7. Phillip Torrone says:

    @allen, you’re free to debate the merits of linking to things or posting excerpts of things, but please keep the comments civil and productive. allen have you contacted the other sites that link to this short story, or have it online, or made a comic or audio file of it? what was their response?

    @jblaschke – sure, please send me all the info – i’m curious about the history of the story and why it’s ok for it to be everywhere and made in to videos, audio tracks, parodies and comic books.

  8. GadgetDon says:

    The problem with the “I’ve seen it everywhere, so it must be public domain” is that there are so many who don’t care about copyright infringement…and it’s easy to type a short story into a text editor. Most sites of which have very little exposure and so things don’t get noticed. Unlike Make magazine and O’Reilly publishing. And like it or not, when this gets posted on the Make Blog, it’s not you that will get the blame, it’ll be Make and O’Reilly Media

    Everything published within the period when the good doctor was writing is still covered by copyright, and it was published in publications with an explicit copyright notice (the books and the magazines), and so it’s not enough to ask “well, what proof is there that it wasn’t released into the public domain”, you need proof that it was done so by the author or his representatives. Furthermore, check out this from the official site’s faq:


    Unlike trademarks (where if you don’t defend your trademarks you lose them), copyrights can be selectively enforced. So even if the Asimov estate didn’t think it was worth going after Joe Smith with his fansite and deliberately decided to give permission to planetariums (although they may have actually gotten permission/licensed it beforehand), they can go after O’Reilly Media.

    I’m sure that it was meant as a tribute to the good doctor. But I doubt that O’Reilly would think highly of those who are such fans of Make, they publish everything on their pages, including the content in the MAKE Digital Edition that is only available to subscribers.

  9. Phillip Torrone says:

    @GadgetDon – linking or excerpts of a short story usually is ok, but the asimov estate could ask these sites not to do so. there seemed to be debate about this post, so after i posted up, i edited my post and just left the links and removed parts of the story, i don’t really want to remove the links, but if i am asked to i will.

    as far as MAKE digital edition goes, there are free previews for everyone to the digital edition.

    i understand what you are saying that copyrights can be selectively enforced – and it’s possible that linking to this story or posting excerpts may not be valued by the asimov estate or the places online that have all these versions of the story, comics, files and parodies aren’t noticed.

  10. Jared says:

    PT – Cool beans, I never heard of that story!

  11. TheNexus says:

    Law Zero: A robot may not injure humanity, or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm! I’m no EFF lawyer but I play one on the tubes. I believe it was fine for MAKE to post the 3 laws, excerpt and links. Wikipedia has them, good nuff for me. Clicking around to read the rest of the story was annoying anyhoo.

  12. Theo says:

    I want to know where to the a print of that painting.

  13. Petter says:

    The painting is signed Rowena, and google tells us it was made by Rowena Morrill. Prints (and the original painting) are available from her site:


  14. George M. Ewing says:

    When asked about the 3 laws, Isaac said the a lot of the credit should go to Astounding SF Editor, John W. Campbell. As with Heinlein’s Future History Calendar and Asimov’s own Foundation stories, Campbell constantly bugged “his” authors to organize and formalize the ideas in the background of the universes they were using for their stories….

    George M. Ewing

  15. Zaini says:

    dude phillip, you’re doing a great job ere. keep it up!

    just ignore the others.

    happy hunting ’09 ya!

  16. Apis says:

    I definitely need to read more of his work, thanks pt. :)

    And for the people that uses Phillip as a punch bag in the copyright debate: I didn’t see the original version of the post and I’m not big on American copyright law, but posting excerpts from a short story sounds like fair use to me. As for the link, the target of that is not published by Make and is really not something they have control over.

    I would presume the linked site has checked the copyright status of the text or have permission to publish it, etc. If anyone doubts that, why not take it up with that site instead of bothering everyone here on the make blog.

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