The Terrifying Future of Copyright

Copyright is a frustrating topic to say the least, and the future of it is a scary thing to think about. No matter how versatile or efficient a system we wind up with over the next decade or so, the circumstances are almost certainly going to be a complete nightmare for somebody, whether they’re artists or users or educators, or… well, basically everybody except copyright lawyers. I feel that exploring the future of copyright is best done by establishing a clear idea of what shouldn’t happen. To do just that, I’ve written a little story that you may want to check out after the jump. In case you’re wondering, this work takes part in the Future of Copyright Contest, which you can read more about here. Enjoy the story, and be sure to check out the other entries as well!

by Jesse Betteridge

The sound of a roaring crowd projected through Trent and Eliza’s ears even though the tennis court they were playing in was completely abandoned. The ambiance stim that they had downloaded to create the effect was a little expensive, but still the most adequate one they could find since the interruptions from R-Tek Communications popped up only every forty-five minutes or so. After a little over an hour of exertion, Trent had to stop. The tennis ball puttered towards the wall behind him.

“Don’t tell me you’ve already reached your limit for this month!” Eliza said as he stood frozen in his tracks. “You know you wouldn’t get those extra fees if you’d turn off that metabolism boosting stim. Just a few months ago you were complaining about how silly it was…”

Trent rubbed the orb protruding from the back of his neck, which was warm to the touch. “Yes, Eliza, I’m aware of the irony… that’s not the problem though. I just haven’t been thinking straight lately. I’ve been having more… problems, you know?” He peered over at Eliza, who was busy pressing invisible buttons in mid-air. While the holo-windows she was projecting through her orb were limited to her own vision, he figured they were the same inane gossip and trivia stims she normally distracted herself with.

“More anxiety problems?” she asked. “Didn’t your therapist tell you to keep painting to help get your mind back on track? I know you were getting really involved with the last one you were working on.”

Trent turned his back as he went to retrieve the ball, trying hard to hide his apprehension. “There’s… been a problem with that. You know the new firmware update that was sent out a couple of weeks ago? Well, I installed it into my orb so I could get back online, but as soon as I did I wasn’t able to see my painting anymore!”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“It’s turned into this unintelligible mess! Like some kind of pixelated puke! I keep trying to fix the painting, but the more I mess around with it, the more chaotic it gets.”

Eliza continued pushing and pulling invisible windows around in an absent-minded fashion as they walked toward the exit. “So… just turn off your orb…”

“You think I haven’t tried? Even when I’m offline or have the orb in suspension mode, it won’t show up! I can’t see it! I’ve tried everything… there’s no way around it, at all!”

Trent showed just enough frustration to get at least some of Eliza’s attention. “Now that you mention it, I think I heard something about that. I think you’re supposed to buy some kind of license before you start an artistic project now. So that R-Tek can properly handle distribution or something. Didn’t you try and buy one?”

“Hah, are you kidding me?” Trent said, “that’s not even a real option. They jacked the prices up again last month.”

“Maybe your therapist is getting a cut?”

Trent rolled his eyes as they walked out the exit and down the sidewalk. The “Better Times” stim he and his fiancée downloaded overlaid the barren streets of the real world with the cosmetic projection of a neatly cobbled road and early twentieth century street lamps. Simple sensory and perception stims like that were inexpensive enough, but creation licenses were a different story.

“I can’t wrap my head around all this junk anymore,” said Eliza, “but I overheard a friend mention some kind of specialist who fixes weird problems like this.” She tried to look like she was recalling this information, but Trent could tell she was discreetly bringing up a chat log stored in her orb. “Her name is Lydia Bodagier, and she’s only one of a handful of people who can handle stuff like this. It only works if you stay disconnected from the network, though. That means no stims at all… it seems unbearable.”

Sensing no other options for her future husband, Eliza got in contact with the woman and set up an appointment. When the arranged day came, she waited with Trent at his apartment as a short woman in baggy, earthtone clothes knocked on the door to room 207 exactly on schedule. She had large, white eyes accentuated by her dark skin and an eccentric use of eyeliner, and carried around a worn out, bootleg designer bag. Without any hesitation, Lydia demanded that she be shown the painting, and had Trent set up the easel and display the canvas. After hunching over and staring intently at it for well over a minute, she tapped the orb on the back of her neck to disconnect from the net to make a final analysis.

“Nope, can’t see a thing,” she said, “whatever you’re making here has definitely been put on some kind of blacklist. But hey, at least they didn’t put a goddamn ad over it, right?” She laughed to herself. Eliza forced herself to laugh along as she discreetly closed the five video ads she had running in her holo-windows. Trent, she noticed, was not finding quite as much humour in the situation.

Lydia had already started shuffling through her bag. “So, if you don’t want to shell out for a license, we’re going to have to do a full physical jailbreak. Grab a chair and just try not to freak out or anything.” She pulled out a small hard drive, a ball gag, a pair of pliers matched with a series of progressively long needles, and an ice pick.

“A… hard drive?” said Trent, “aren’t those illegal?”

Lydia stood up, scrunching her eyes at him. “What? You thought what we were doing was legal?” She looked at Eliza, who was caught off guard by this unforeseen piece of trivia.

“I… didn’t really know the difference,” Eliza stammered, flustered over what she believed to be an innocuous arrangement. Lydia chuckled, as she slipped on a pair of surgical gloves, clearly finding some amusement in the young woman’s ignorance.

“Don’t freak out, it’ll be fine. Just tell the hubby here to hold still.” Lydia pushed Trent’s head down and brushed his unkempt hair aside to get a clear view of the dimly glowing orb in the back of his neck. She tapped it a few times, placing it in suspension mode. Before he could ask how she managed to figure out his password, she jammed the ball gag into his mouth and strapped it tightly around his face. “Soooo… we’re going to have to manually puncture some of your nerves before I can even hook the drive in properly, and it’s really important that you don’t scream. Can’t be drawing any attention.”

Eliza looked at Lydia, just barely noticing that Trent’s eyes had become dilated and blood-shot. “What the hell? I thought you were just going to tinker with his orb… isn’t that how these things work?”

“He’s a late adopter, so I’ve gotta do it the rough way. Don’t worry though, he’ll only think that his eyes are popping out.” Lydia picked up one of the needles, and began sterilizing it with a small cloth. “He won’t know what’s what either way, so I suggest you just go distract yourself in the other room. Shouldn’t be too hard!”

Finding no argument to be had, Eliza stepped into Trent’s small kitchen, somewhat overwhelmed by the situation she gotten him into. Knowing that there was no going back at this point, she could only assure herself that this was the only viable solution to his anxiety problems. After all, painting was really the only thing that ever kept him captivated in any significant way, and R-Tek wasn’t giving them any kind of reasonable work around. She remembered her baby niece who had just had her orb installed the previous month – one of the newer models that didn’t protrude out of the body at all. If anything, Trent was lucky he had the type of unit that he did. She told herself that things could be much, much worse. Hoping to tune out the procedure going on in the other room, she gradually drew herself back into the same half dozen holo-windows she usually had opened. After all, expensive stims like “Chrono Surveys,” “Virtua Celebrity Stalker,” as well as the plethora of other programs that discreetly ran in the background of her day-to-day life had become the closest things she had to a comfort zone.

After a short wait, she heard Lydia call her back out. She was surprised to see her fiancé, now fully hacked, dabbing a piece of blood-soaked gauze around the back of his neck. He was clearly uncomfortable, but was already calmed by the sight of his painting.

“Alright,” Lydia began to explain, “so here’s where we’re at. I installed a workaround for the blacklisting thing, so you should be able to continue with your painting therapy crap with no trouble. I suggest that you don’t take too long with it though, because you’re going to need me back here to undo the process once the next firmware update is sent out. If R-Tek detects a circumvention in your hardware during the installation process, the orb will permanently deactivate cutting your brain off from the rest of your body. And then you die.”

“WHAT?” screamed Trent, “how can they do that? Why would they do that?”

“Because they’re dicks,” said Lydia matter-of-factly. “Look, just try not to think about it too much. Best thing to do is just keep your orb completely deactivated for the next few weeks, and you should have no trouble. When you’re done, give me a ring, and I’ll fix you back up. We won’t even need to work out a payment until the second visit. Obviously you won’t be able to wire me anything, but we’ll arrange something, and I promise it’ll be much cheaper than one of those licenses. Just remember that I’m the only one who can finish the job.”

“So do you really think this is the best way to deal with stress?” Trent asked.

“Well, if you really fancy yourself an artist, you should find that deactivating all of your stims will help you relax,” Lydia said, gathering up her equipment. “You just might be surprised.”

Trent slumped down in his chair. “You know, sometimes I really miss S-Tek Communications.”

Despite the risks, he took her words to heart. At first acclimating himself to a world without interaction seemed unbearable. His only source of news was through the scarce television signals picked up by a second-hand set Eliza had found for him. He could hardly bring himself to go outside. Without his “Heavenly Scent” stim, the stagnant stench of the outdoors was no longer perfumed through his nose. Without the “Flab Filter” stim, his eyes no longer slimmed down the overweight leviathans he saw roaming the streets each day. The lack of cosmetic patches was a sobering reminder of just how run-down and chaotic his neighbourhood actually was, especially his own apartment. But if nothing else, it served as fuel for his artistic escape. He let the painting became his solitary oasis of order and beauty.

His hermetism essentially required Eliza to stop by a few times a week to drop off groceries and provide him with a bare minimum of socialization. In fact, she had been seeing more of him in the past few weeks than she had in prior months, although the chasm caused by Trent’s disconnection kept her from fully realizing it. Even though they could not be authorized to so much as enter a movie theatre without Trent’s orb activated, Eliza tried not to let the many inconveniences ruin the general routine they had followed for the past two years of their engagement. She was also never bothered by the fact that she would never be able to see his painting, despite the large amount of time Trent spent working on it.

This went on for nearly a month before Eliza learned of grim news while walking to Trent’s apartment. Projecting a news holo-window while carrying groceries, she was shocked to see Lydia’s face appear at the tail end of a report. Underlying it was the text: “Renegade Hacker Found Dead In Local Hotel Room.”

“While we hope to bring you more on the coverage of the famous hacker’s death, we again stress that police have ruled out foul play,” the reporter said, before trailing off into unrelated banter with her co-hosts. She rushed to Trent’s building, and found him huddled in front of the television with beads of sweat dripping down his face. He had already gotten the news.

Trent was showing all the familiar signs of his anxiety attacks. Eliza grabbed the chair in front of his painting and sat him down, doing everything she could to calm his nerves, putting as much focus as possible on bringing down his accelerated breathing. She tried desperately to make eye contact with him as his pupils bolted in every direction. She closed her holo-windows and tried to shut down every one of her sensory stims that she consciously could. Some kind of physical reciprocation had to be established, but removing every digital obstacle in her system that stood in the way seemed unwieldy. In such an urgent situation, it was much too difficult for her to even distinguish which of the things she saw and heard and felt were real or generated by the countless stims she constantly ran simultaneously. No matter how hard she tried, she could not bridge the chasm between her and her fiancé.

Suddenly, the radiance of her surroundings instantly fizzled out as Eliza found herself cut off from the network. Her orb deactivated, leaving her only with a blinking message stating that a major firmware update was available, and that she must install it in order to reactivate. She looked past the disembodied red notice in front of her and briefly glanced around at the bland, ill-maintained surroundings she was so rarely subjected to. Still unable to see his painting, she turned her focus back on Trent. At first she was drawn to the subtle differences that the lack of incessant filters had imbued upon his face. But then she noticed that he had become completely calm and content. Despite the horrible circumstances, he had stopped panicking. He was tranquil, and had completely absorbed her attention.

Since Trent disconnected from the system, he had been able to look at her actual face directly, which he rarely had a chance to do before. It had been difficult to get her attention while she was distracted by her stims, but looking in her eyes now, he could tell without doubt that she was truly looking at him as well. For a brief moment they sat together, free of the system and together in the dingy, run-down world they always worked so hard to avoid. Eliza stayed in his gaze for an indefinite moment, their hands pressed together.

The serenity was soon broken when Eliza began to hesitate and shift her eyes. “Trent… sorry, wait just a minute.” She smiled at him as she pulled her hand away from his and reached for her orb, preparing to download the new update, “I can’t put this off. It won’t take long.”

Trent waited and tried his best to stay calm as Eliza closed her eyes and processed the firmware. His situation was dire and he had by no means found true relief, but he knew that as long as he and Eliza could work together, they would find a solution. After all, they wanted him to play by the rules and be a part of the system so badly. Surely getting back in would be much easier than breaking out was.

When the installation finished, Eliza opened her eyes, but they never made contact with Trent’s. “Trent… Trent where are you?” She called out to him as she shuffled around the apartment, looking in every direction. She opened and closed the doors and closets, seemingly unable to notice her fiancé standing in the middle of the room. “No… no, don’t tell me he got up and left!”

“Eliza… what’s wrong? What are you doing?” He yelled as loud as he could to grab her attention, but she failed to notice him as she headed towards the closet to grab her jacket.

“No… no don’t leave! What’s wrong with you, can’t you hear me? I’M RIGHT HERE!” The feeling of dread that had lingered in his throat before returned and began to plug all of his senses. The world was becoming a blur. Disoriented and confused, he stumbled backwards, knocking his painting off of the easel. He reached out to grab her hand, which he was only barely able to discern, only to be repelled away by an invisible aura. He tried again and again, but every attempt at contact was automatically rejected. He and his hacked system had now completely fallen off of her radar. He was locked out.

As Eliza grabbed her bag and slipped on her shoes, Trent collapsed on the floor. Consumed by anxiety, he could no longer see straight, let alone rationalize his situation. He wanted nothing more than to regain that one true connection that had transfixed him mere minutes before, and regardless of the consequences, he became completely fixated on the one place he could chase after it. With every bit of reason and logic in his mind drowned out with unyielding terror, he tapped the orb on the back of his neck and immediately connected to the net. Without any warning or prompt, the new firmware update began downloading and installing into his system.

“ELIZA, DON’T LEAVE! I’M RIGHT HERE! YOU’LL SEE!” The door slammed shut right as the installation finished. Not a second after, all of Trent’s warped senses funneled together into a field of empty blackness surrounding three lines of text written out in a simple, rudimentary font:

“We at R-Tek Communications have detected a problem with your hardware. It appears that this orb system has been circumvented and compromised. Regardless of intent, this is a direct violation of current international law, and as such your device will be deactivated immediately.”

The white text stayed clear for only a moment before diffusing into endless darkness.

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