In the new farcical sci-fi book Year Zero, aliens, having discovered how wonderful Earth music is, learn that they owe the all the money in the universe to the United States because of its harsh copyright penalties. Brooke talks to author Rob Reid about taking the great copyright debate to absurd new heights.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The new novel, Year Zero, a science fiction comic romp, considers the cosmic implications of our copyright laws. It begins in 1972 with the Pioneer 10 probe, the first spacecraft to achieve escape velocity from the solar system. That’s when the, quote, “Refined League” of the universe’s extraterrestrials first noticed us and began to tune in to our broadcasts. Now, the Refined League worships artistic endeavor, and most revered of all the arts is music. But as it turns out –
ROB REID: Aliens suck at music.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Rob Reid is the author of Year Zero. We’ll be hearing some bits from the audio book read by John Hodgman but first back to those aliens. They had music and they thought it was pretty good, until -
ROB REID: Until they heard ours. And the reason is – isn’t so much that their music is terrible. It’s more that our music is that good.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
And then when the aliens do hear their first human song, and it’s the theme song to “Welcome Back Kotter,” they believe they are hearing the greatest creative achievement since the dawn of time itself.
[“WELCOME BACK KOTTER” THEME SONG]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The universe convulses.
JOHN HODGMAN: The delight triggered by the Kotter song released so much endorphin-like goo in their brains that they hemorrhaged, bringing on immediate, ecstatic death. Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Soon they discovered the Top 40 stations of the AM spectrum, and they listened to “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees, “Seasons in the Sun” [LAUGHS] by Terry Jacks and the immortal “Boogie Oogie Oogie” by A Taste of Honey, more rhapsodic joy, more hemorrhaging brains.
JOHN HODGMAN: The last big die-off occurred when WPLG broadcast both sides of Led Zeppelin IV, and anyone who survived that had what it took to safely listen to even the most stellar rock ‘n roll. Alien anthropologists began studying other aspects of human society, and that’s when it hit them. They owed us – an ungodly amount of money.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Which would bankrupt the entire universe, many times over. Could you explain how our copyright laws almost result in the annihilation of the planet?
ROB REID: For reasons that are baked deep into the plot, the aliens are obligated to honor our copyright laws, and this is a problem because, as it turns out, the United States has the most onerous copyright laws ever created by any society anywhere in the universe, since the Big Bang. The key manifestation of this is the $150,000 maximum fine that a person can be liable for, for pirating a single copy of a single song.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And this isn’t fiction.
ROB REID: That is not fiction. It is called the Copyright Damages Improvement Act. And tens of thousands of American citizens have, in fact, been sued under that very law.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tell me about Nick Carter.
ROB REID: Nick Carter is our hero. And, like so many great action heroes, he is a low level copyright lawyer.
He is chosen by the aliens to be their champion on Earth. They find that the most powerful media law firm on Earth is called Carter, Gellar & Marx, and there’s a young man named Nick Carter. And they’re like, “Great, the Backstreet Boy, right?
So they come down to this Nick Carter and, of course, he’s not the Backstreet Boy. He’s just a low level copyright attorney who happens to have the same very common last name as the guy who started the firm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you have a great character in the book, a lawyer named Judy Sherman, who’s one of the heads of your protagonist’s firm.
ROB REID: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is she based on a real character?
ROB REID: She actually isn’t. I can’t even say that she’s a composite of a bunch of people that I know. She’s just this terrifying, exhilarating force of white collar nature –
- who is ruthlessly great at her job. And her job is to make sure that the legal environment is as hospitable as possible to the music industry.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, I asked you if she was real only because you have another character referred to in the text as “Senator Fido” —
ROB REID: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: — who does Judy’s bidding like an obedient poodle. But you fleetingly [LAUGHS] identify him in a footnote as Orin Hatch. [LAUGHS]
ROB REID: Yes, indeed. Now, this character fancies himself to be a songwriter. And so, music industry lobbyists like Judy are able to manipulate him by playing to this little fantasy of his. And from my own interactions with him over the years, I accrued quite a collection of Orin Hatch CDs, actually.
And it is firmly believed in certain circles that the music industry lobbyists have played to Mr. Hatch’s songwriting pretensions to great effect.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: At one of Judy’s staff meetings, where she solicits way to extend the copyright law, somebody suggests having copyright infringement classified as terrorism.
ROB REID: She’s goading her minions to come up with new ways to profiteer from different laws that are on the books. And our hero, Nick Carter, goes through this cockamamie idea about how a change to the Patriot Act could end up putting file sharing right in the same category as dirty bombs and other horrible things. Then Judy seems to denounce him for having such a sick and twisted idea, only to reveal at the end of her faux denunciation [BROOKE LAUGHING] that they’ve already tried it a couple of times.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Rob, I see in your bio that you were one of the first Harvard MBAs to specialize in Internet Studies. You founded one of the earliest digital music sites, listen.com. Was this a fever dream of revenge?
ROB REID: [LAUGHS] No. As I started crafting a storyline around this core notion of aliens loving our music, I realized, hey, I know something that’s really hysterical when you think about it, which is our copyright law, from all these years that I spent working in online music. I, unfortunately, did not meet any aliens though.
[KOTTER THEME MUSIC/UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Rob, thank you very much.
ROB REID: Thanks so much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Rob Reid is the author of Year Zero.