Every now and then, a book becomes the catalyst for a social movement. Off all the books on the same theme, the author somehow manages to bring together the threads of compelling narrative and graphic imagery that captures the growing tide of moral outrage and gives it shape and voice. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man. Upton Sinclair’s the Jungle. Could Rob Reid’s Year Zero join this mighty literary pantheon, rousing the American people against the forces of copyright maximalism that keep trying to choke our freedom of expression?
Almost certainly not. But even if Year Zero won’t motivate you to join the U.S. Pirate Party, it will entertain you while educating you about how messed up our system of copyright law (and patent) have become, and introduce you to the stable of music labels, lawyers and lobbyists who work so hard to make it that way. Reid provides a satire in the science fiction/fantasy tradition of Gulliver’s Travels and Idiocracy that will make you laugh and wince at the same time. Those already all too familiar with the current sorry state of affairs will have the additional fun of guessing the real identities of Reid’s thinly disguised characters.
Author Rob Reid was one of the founders of Listen.com, one of the early services trying to legally offer music online. After many years of trying to get the music industry to offer their product online in a way people wanted to buy it, Reid got smoked by iTunes. iTunes proved that everything Reid had believed about music fans wanting to buy music was right, and that the chief obstacle to legal music online was the utter hostility of the major label executives to anything new. As a result, even someone in with the right business model in the right place at the right time, willing to pay royalties still couldn’t succeed because a handful of executives simply refused to let go of the glory days when music CDs were the bees knees. Unfortunately, money and influence allow this handful of music executives to make their hostility to the Internet and a changing world a matter of law through the dramatic expansion of copyright law and aggressive enforcement under the rubric of the “war on piracy.”
Reid’s familiarity and antipathy for everything having to do with the I.P. Mafia (as I call the assemblage of music industry executives and their paid legal and lobbying talent) provide the background and motivation for Year Zero, a social satire in the guise of a science fiction novel. We follow the adventures of copyright lawyer Nick Carter, an associate at a large New York law firm with with a vigorous IP enforcement practice. As Carter gloomily contemplates the likelihood that he will not make partner and will therefore lose his job, in walk a 6 foot tall Mullah with red hair and a “curvaceous Nun.” Anyone familiar with the conventions of science fiction will immediate recognize such an odd pair as aliens trying to pass themselves off as humans. The aliens explain they need licensing rights to every single song on Earth, otherwise the Earth is doomed to destruction.
Why? It turns out that human beings make the best music in the galaxy, even if we suck at everything else from a cultural perspective. As a result, the Refined League, the collection of all advanced races in the Universe, proceeds to copy all our music. Only afterwards do they discover that this is a crime under local law, carrying with it a fine of up to $150,000 per copy. Under the Refined League’s version of the Prime Directive, the local laws governing the use of any cultural artform must be obeyed. The alien races that make up the Refined League owe the denizens of Earth all the wealth of the Universe. As one might imagine, this makes them a tad unhappy and a number of them conclude that destroying the Earth is preferable.
As Carter knows, even the threat of alien apocalypse will not prompt the music industry and the IP Mafia to see reason. So Carter needs to find a way to save the Earth while simultaneously saving his legal career. As a side benefit, he also hopes to win over the current object of his affections — his extremely attractive neighbor, independent musician Mandy Shark — who witnesses one of his early alien contacts.
The plot is suitably ridiculous for satire, and Reid caries it off very well. He captures with acid accuracy the culture of New York IP law firms and their quest to generate ever more legal fees by convincing their clients to adopt ever more aggressive enforcement and legislative lobbying for ever-stronger “anti-piracy” measures. From the “high ranking Republican Senator” nicknamed “Fido” by Carter’s colleagues (for his unswerving loyalty to the music industry) to the various lawyers and music execs, Reid populates his world with thinly disguised versions of the players who make up the real world of copyright law and policy. Reid avoids descending into the merely mean-spirited or dull polemics by maintaing the appropriate level of goofiness and absurdity. In a world where aliens worship the Back Street Boys and the Welcome Back Kotter theme, or take the form of chrome vacuum cleaner leading to some unfortunate confusion, the insanity of modern copyright law fits right in.
The plot moves along in swift and goofy manner, as our hero survives the dangers of alien assassins, an intergalactic trial, and the hostile attention of the head of the copyright practice group at his firm. Reid’s copious but humorous footnotes provide the interested reader with lots of useful tidbits and background on our current copyright law. For me, as a lawyer who can’t bear to watch most TV “law shows” because of how badly they screw things up, I was pleasantly surprised to see Reid have the details and arcana of copyright law so stunningly accurate and so humorously presented — with a spot on send-up of the impossibly oppressive and toxic nature of working as an associate in a big New York law firm. I would never have imagined that anyone, even Cory Doctorow, could write a science fiction satire in which the Berne Convention is a major plot point. But Reid pulls it off, and in a way that has had my non-lawyer friends who never showed the least interest in copyright policy recommending the book and asking me questions.
To conclude, you don’t have to be a lawyer or one of the “open source ayatollahs of the Electronic Freedom Foundation” to enjoy the book. Although as is often the case in a well done satire, insider knowledge of the world Reid lampoons adds both additional layers of comedy and the occasional wince as a jest strikes too close to home. So go read Year Zero by Rob Reid. Share it with your friends (legally of course). Perhaps it won’t spark a new social movement, but it might make your friends more willing to pick up the phone to call their own “Senator Fido.” And, if it inspires you to make a contribution to folks fighting the good fight — such as my employer Public Knowledge — so much the better.
Stay tuned . . . .