Next Wednesday, November 7, author Rob Reid will be joining EFF in San Francisco for a special Geek Reading of his debut novel, Year Zero. Here's our review of the book — if you haven't read it yet, pick up a copy.
It's not uncommon for copyright licenses to include a bit of overblown legalese about how the contract applies "throughout the known universe." Usually that bit of sci-fi language is just meant to cover all the bases, but what if it actually gets put to the test? Year Zero, published this summer to rave reviews, explores that question, taking on draconian U.S. copyright law from an extraterrestrial perspective.
(He should know a thing or two about the intricacies and oddities of copyright law: Reid was also the founder of Listen.com, which created the Rhapsody digital music service.)
In the book, the protagonist Nick Carter is a junior lawyer at a big-time entertainment law firm. While Year Zero is a work of fiction, the firm's actions sound familiar enough: they push for overbroad and draconian copyright laws, and work with studios and record labels to enforce those laws through ridiculous lawsuits.
His career is going smoothly until he receives a visit from by a group of unusual potential clients. They're unusual not just because they're seeking an incredibly large deal — licenses to make unlimited reproductions of all of the world's music output, forever — but also because they're aliens, obsessed with our tunes.
In the story, as Carter goes to great lengths to try to help them, he encounters challenges along the way from absurdities that have been worked into the law over the years. In many cases, it was firms like his that worked these loopholes and hurdles into legislation. Much of the book's humor lies in the truth that, while we take much of the system for granted, it makes very little sense when you have to explain it to somebody totally unfamiliar, or even from another planet.
That's the same brand of humor on display in Reid's widely discussed TED talk from earlier this year, "The $8 Billion iPod." Some parts of the copyright discussion have gotten so disconnected from reality that just saying them out loud is funny.
But in the tradition of Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, there are plenty more laugh lines throughout the book. Nick Carter is fast-talking even when he's in over his head — a position he seems to find himself in a lot. And the aliens keep him on his toes, at times reflecting his own culture back at him, and at times seeming just as out-of-this-world as they truly are.
In all, Year Zero is a very funny examination of human culture and U.S. copyright, and reflects the kind of intimate knowledge that comes from an in-depth background in the tech and copyright world. We're looking forward to hearing more thoughts from Rob Reid at our Geek Reading event. If you're in San Francisco, you should join us!