By Ken Liu | January, 2012
"Excuse me, which
publication are you with again?" Brinnna, Breakout Artist of the Year,
Multi-Platinum Songstress and Idol of Three Continents, asked me.
She was still in her stage outfit, a tight, bright red leather hobble dress with rings of meter-long spikes around the collar and waist that looked frightening and couldn't have been comfortable to wear. I doubt she could have sat down even if she wanted to.
I tried hard to maintain eye contact. Her stage makeup gave her the appearance of having eight eyes - befitting the theme of her Panopticon Tour - and I had to pick out the pair that was real. Second pair from the bottom, I decided.
"I'm with The Daily Troll," I said.
She pretended to have heard of it and nodded. For all she knew, The Daily Troll was a big deal here, and since her publicist had cleared me, I must be important, right? She really ought to have paid her publicist better though, if she didn't want her to be so easily bribed.
"Ms. Brinnna," I said, not sure really how long to drag out the alveolar nasal. "Would you sign these posters for my daughters, Cate - that's with a 'C' - and Sally, before the interview? They're huge fans."
She was gracious, and amazingly, she managed to lean over in her platform heels and that insane dress without falling or hurting herself and signed the posters.
"Thank you," I said. And now for the real purpose of my interview request. "I brought something to show you." I took out two sheets of paper from my briefcase.
Brinnna took the sheets and glanced over the musical notation. She hummed under her breath. "This is a rearrangement of 'Thistle Kisses.' I haven't seen it before."
"Right," I said. "Except I would have phrased it differently. 'Thistle Kisses' is a rearrangement, a paraphrase, if you will, of this."
"What're you talking about?"
"This is a folk song collected from a young woman in Ireland, who learned the basic melody from her mother, but modified it significantly herself. It seems that 'Thistle Kisses' is based on it, though no one ever paid her for a license. This young woman is now my client."
It was now easy to keep eye contact with her. The pair of real eyes narrowed and glowered, very distinct from the fake ones. "I make no secret that I get my inspiration from traditional Gaelic folk songs. Some of the lyrics and melodies in my songs I got from my grandmother, when I was little. It's all public domain anyway. A lot of these songs have been passed on orally for generations all over the thirty-two counties. I owe your client, whoever she is, nothing. Now, get the hell out of my sight!"
I smiled. "I understand this is a bit of a shock. Allow me to back up a bit."
I explained to her that I worked with Dr. Terrence Fenn of the Advanced Physics Institute of Gottingen, and surely she had heard the news about his breakthrough?
A year ago, Dr. Fenn successfully demonstrated that time travel was indeed possible. But according to the Bohm-Fenn Equations, his machine would only allow us to visit the past. Calculating the future by means of those equations led to a division by zero.
Funding for our work almost immediately dried up. The governments and businesses had supported our research in the hope of obtaining a glimpse into the future, for technologies and prognostications that would be of value in the here and now.
What was the good of a time machine that only delved into the past? Yes, yes, archaeologists and historians were excited, but the humanities, academic beggars, were hardly in a position to support Big Science. And offering history tours for the very wealthy, like those "space tours" from the Russian Space Agency, would only generate a trickle of cash, barely enough to keep the project from being dismantled. I watched as my colleagues were let go, one after another.
Maybe there was a way to break through the limits imposed by the equations. Maybe Dr. Fenn could find new equations. But we needed a lot more research, and a lot more money. That was when I got my idea.
"We went back to 1871, to Skreen, County Meath, your grandmother's ancestral village. There, we met Ciara o Dalaigh, a childhood friend of your great-great-great grandmother, and a famed singer. We noted some similarities between one of her songs and 'Thistle Kisses.' Your great-great-great grandmother learned the song from her, and then passed the music down in the family. So you did copy our client, just a few generations removed."
"That's ridiculous. And even if you're right about the origin of the melody, so what? Something created that long ago has no rights left."
"Well, this is where you're wrong. We brought Ciara back to the U.S., to the year 2010. We helped her write her song down - 'fixed in a tangible medium of expression,' to quote the lawyers - and registered her work with the Copyright Office. Now that's a few years before you wrote 'Thistle Kiss,' isn't it? And then we brought her to the present. In fact, she's a girl just about your age, sitting outside your office. You can meet her, if you like."
She stared at me in disbelief, sure that I was insane. Then I invited her to take a look at the online copyright registry. When she saw the entry for "Thistle Kiss" dated 2010, she got quiet.
"Her copyright will last for her life plus seventy years, unless Congress extends it some more. Since she's alive right this moment, you're most definitely in violation of my client's valuable intellectual property."
She was furious, and threatened to drag the case out for years in court. I told her the names of our lawyers - the best entertainment law counsel to be found in either New York or LA - and patiently walked her through what would happen next: whoever she picked as her lawyer, I could always go back to a day earlier and meet first with the lawyer and get her conflicted out as a client.
She was beaten, and she knew it.
"How do I make you go away?" She said, gritting her teeth. Now her real eyes were even easier to pick out. They were shut.
"I'm sure we can negotiate a royalty agreement that would be amicable for both sides," I said. "We'll be in touch."
She swore at me. I bowed.
Really, why should Ciara not benefit from her creative endeavors just because mass media hadn't been invented when she was born? You could argue that we were righting a historical wrong.
Call me a copyright troll if you want. But this money would be used to promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts. It's a good cause.
After leaving Brinnna's
dressing room, I called the home office to arrange for Ciara's return
trip to 1871. I never really succeeded in explaining to her what this
was all about, and she was frightened by all the witchcraft that was
being practiced on her. For assigning her copyright to us, we paid her a
few gold coins - it was more than enough to set her up for life. And if
we ever needed her again, we knew when to find her.
I stayed on the phone to stay informed about the next pick-up. "You found Jacob and Wilhelm already? Good, good. Go back and follow them and make sure you get the right guy, the one who tells them about 'Snow White.'"
I was really going to enjoy the meeting with Disney next week.