What if humans were unimaginably horrible at every form of art in the universe but one: music? And what if our music was so good, compared to the efforts of our galactic neighbors, that its discovery resulted in a type of galactic reckoning where dates were revised, cultures were altered and some races were completely wiped out due to ecstatic brain hemorrhaging? And what if the collective universe’s love of our music resulted in so much unintended piracy (according to our laws) that if an attempt were made to pay the fines, the universe, and everyone in it, would be bankrupted? This is the intriguing situation Rob Reid playfully explores in Year Zero.
On October 13, 1977, at 8:29 EST, an alien probe entered our solar system and locked on to the strongest broadcast signal coming from Earth. It happened to be from WABC-TV in New York, and it was showing an episode of Welcome Back Kotter. As the closing credits began to roll, and the closing theme began to play (“welcome back, welcome back, welcome baaaaack”) the Refined League of the Universe was introduced to human music. This became known as “The Kotter Moment,” which resulted in nearly four decades of illicit—but ecstatic—copying of every type of music humans have made. But, as the Refined League has learned more about humans and our laws and customs, they have also realized that they have broken our copyright laws (which must be respected) and owe the Earth an unimaginable amount of money—enough money to bankrupt every being in the universe! The fines could be paid, but no one is particularly happy with this scenario. The Earth could be destroyed, thus voiding the debt (albeit in a rather final manner!), but that would need to happen by our own hands with no outside interference (or be made to look that way). Finally, it could be possible to reach an agreement with us to ameliorate the damages.
When two unexpected people barge into Nick Carter’s office at a world-famous law firm specializing in copyrights and patents—one dressed as a mullah and the other as a nun—and declare that they want to negotiate a license for unlimited use of every piece of human music ever created, or to be created, throughout the universe, it is safe to say that this is only the first clue that not only will this case end up being the most interesting case with which Nick will ever be involved, but that the ramifications of this case could literally decide the fate of the Earth.
Year Zero is a tongue-planted-firmly-in-cheek exploration of the ridiculousness of our copyright laws and the potential ramifications if those laws are followed through to their extremes. It is also a “first contact” novel and a glorious tribute to U.S. pop culture from the 1970s to the present. The result is intriguing, thought-provoking, laugh-out-loud funny, and a wonderful reminder about television shows, movies, actors, songs and musicians you may not have thought of for years. The author, Rob Reid, is the founder of listen.com, which includes the online music service Rhapsody. While Reid writes with authority about copyright infractions and their extremes, his position about these laws is far from balanced. While this authority leads to times when the writing in the novel gets a bit bogged down by the “legalese” used to explain U.S. copyright law, it also gives the situations he presents a greater sense of realism and humor. He also highlights the games that are played between governmental, corporate, legal and lobbying bodies to influence and shape copyright legislation into a net wide enough to capture almost anyone, but to benefit very few. No one is safe, and Reid takes no prisoners. The conclusion of the book wraps up nicely, but does leave an opening for a sequel. Year Zero is an enjoyable and informative romp through pop culture and how our race tries to protect it!