Rob Reid – Year Zero

Nov 17th, 2012 by Sebastian in news

Year Zero is a humorous fable by venture capitalist and author Rob Reid about of all things, music copyright. Mr. Reid imagines a scenario in which every member of the entire sentient universe has engaged in massive copyright violations by carrying around essentially every song ever recorded on Earth on their super-iPods. For some convoluted reasons involving respecting local cultures and laws, the citizens of the Refined Species therefore owe Earth (specifically, copyright holders on Earth) more money than exists in the universe (common currency exists in the form of precious metals like gold and platinum that have been scattered across the cosmos by early supernovae). As a result, the monied interests of the universe have a keen desire to destroy the Earth – or even more diabolically, convince us to destroy ourselves – and thereby cancel the debt. It is left to our lawyer protagonist Nick Carter (not to be confused with the Backstreet Boy of the same name), his neighbour (and barely concealed love interest) Manda, and a couple of intergalactic reality show stars to save the Earth, and maybe do something even more challenging – challenge copyright law!

Throughout the book, I felt that Mr. Reid was channelling Douglas Adams with a similar jaunty tone, outlandish characters, and copious footnotes. And let’s not forget the funny! Year Zero is first and foremost a satire, digging not only at the music industry and copyright law, but also technophiles, reality shows, and modern politics. I believe there is also a sincere love of music hidden in there as well, and I strongly suspect that there were a myriad of inside jokes and references that went unappreciated by me.

Behind the satire and humour however, there is not much in the way of plot or character development. Mostly it is just our Everyman protagonist bumbling from one zany intergalactic frying pan to the next. But hey, it was definitely good for a laugh. And Nick Carter’s legal solution for saving the Earth is indeed ingenious. Mr. Reid clearly has an axe to grind, however, and it is clear how the ideas from his famous TED talk have found there way in to the book.

As for my part, Rob Reid is preaching to the choir. My views on copyright were exploded four or five years ago. I was invited to talk on a panel on intellectual property, a topic far outside my actual expertise, and in the course of my preparation I came across a paper by Mark A. Lemley of Stanford University. That paper was Property, Intellectual Property, and Free Riding and was authored back in 2004. In it, Lemley makes a number of arguments about how the term “intellectual property” causes a great deal of confusion with real property, in particular in the US precedence-based legal system. He convincingly argues that precendent from real property cases have no application when it comes to intellectual property.

However, the most important argument coming from his paper is the following: there is nothing in the economic theory that forms the basis of our modern capitalist economy to suggest that a producer should be able to capture ALL of the potential value of her product. On the contrary, the producer is entitled to a reasonable profit, and nothing more. The additional value that nevertheless exists is known as a positive externality (contrasted by negative externalities of production like environmental pollution). Positive externalities can have many benefits for the economy as a whole and should be encouraged.

When applied to copyright, this basically means that publishers do not in fact have an economic right to extract every last penny for the use of their works. They should recover their production costs and also make a reasonable profit (enough to live on, or even live very well, if they are especially successful). They should not however go around suing students and young mothers who happen to have shared digital copies among friends, because this kind of positive externality (digitally enabled sharing) is helping to enrich our culture and stimulate creativity all across the board, from YouTube mash-ups to amateur covers to professional artists (many of whom will openly admit to blatantly ripping off musical ideas from other artists).

If you would like to stay on top of copyright and IPR issues, visit Techdirt, or, for a more European view, Rick Falkvinge.

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