A brief review below the cut.
It is too much to hope for that Year Zero will do for the digital rights movement what Silent Spring did for the environmental movement. Fortunately, Year Zero is a lot more fun. So even if it doesn't galvanize a lot of people to write their member of Congress, people should read and enjoy. Along the way, they will learn something about the driving forces behind the dramatic expansion of U.S. intellectual property law and how it has hurt all of us (even the artists and inventors it purported benefits) with the exception of the law firms making billions in lobbying and legal fees.
Author Rob Reid was one of the founders of Listen.com, which was 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. 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. You don't have to be a lawyer or one of the "open source ayatollahs of the Electronic Freedom Foundation" to enjoy the book. As is often the case, however, 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 and nominate it for a Hugo. It may not motivate you to join the U.S. Pirate Party, but it will entertain you, and perhaps help you understand why our current copyright laws are so messed up.