Back when I was a kid, if you’d told me that I’d one day lead the Detroit Red Wings to not one, but three consecutive Stanley cup championships as the team’s center, captain, and (for the first and third seasons) MVP, I would have laughed and said “not a chance!” And I would have been right, because I was a dismal hockey player then, and I still am.
Instead of joining the NHL, I entered the tech industry, and eventually started the company that created the Rhapsody music service. In doing this, I learned far more than I ever cared to about giant media companies, their romance with the US Congress, and the mutant spawn of that romance that we call “American Copyright Law.”
Under this law, the maximum penalty for pirating a single copy of a single song is $150,000. This is about 57 times the maximum fine for drunk driving in my own state of California. Now, I believe that intellectual property laws are very important, and that we should respect them. But when the fine for downing a twelve pack and then racing down the highway is a sliver of what you can get for swiping a copy of “Oops I Did it Again,” our priorities have clearly gone off the rails.(1)
I wanted to satirize this situation when I sat down to write my first novel. But how do you satirize a legal system that can turn a $249 iPod classic into a carrier of eight billion dollars worth of contraband? (2) If you’re a science fiction author, the answer is that you add aliens. Lots and lots and lots of aliens.
My new novel, Year Zero, tells the story of a vast, intergalactic civilization whose members are so into our pop music that they inadvertently commit the biggest copyright infringement since the Big Bang. For reasons that are baked deep into the storyline, they’re on the hook to honor our copyright laws, and to pay the fines and penalties associated with breaking them. The entire universe is therefore bankrupt. All of its wealth is owed to us – and to our record labels. And we humans don’t know it. Yet.
One of my favorite writers of all time is Stanislaw Lem (The Cyberiad can serve as a gateway drug to a lifelong Lem addiction if you haven’t yet read his work). In many of his tales, he takes socio-political tendencies (or technological possibilities) to their outer logical extremes, and then has wicked fun with the results. The beauty of his work is that if you don’t care about the philosophy that underpins the story, you’re still in for a terrific ride.
I tried to strike a similar balance in Year Zero. If you’re interested in issues of piracy, intellectual property, and copyright in the digital age, you’ll find a lot of relevant substance in the book. But if you’re in the huge majority that doesn’t care much about these issues, you can just treat them as the dynamic that gets the plot going.
I’d love to know if you think I struck this balance well. This is my first novel, and I’d welcome your thoughts – please message me on Twitter (@Rob_Reid), or via my Facebook author page (Facebook.com/ReadRobReid).
1. This statement is also true if totally awesome music is involved – like Led Zeppelin’s classic “When The Levee Breaks,” for instance. But citing a Britney Spears song makes the point that much more powerfully, wouldn’t you say?
2. A 160-gigabyte iPod classic can hold 53,333 pirated 3-minute songs, which at $150,000 a pop could run you $8 billion in fines. I once turned this dumb fact into an entire TED talk. Seriously – it’s here: http://bit.ly/ReidOnTED