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Copyright is a hot-button topic these days. Does information want to be free…or just reasonably priced? I discussed copyright at some length 25 years ago—a year before the first TCP/IP wide area network in the world went operational—two years before the first Macintosh went on sale!—in the following story. It won the 1983 Hugo Award for Best Short Story, and I hope you’ll still find it illuminating today.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.

Melancholy Elephants

Part 3

She struggled to get back on the rails.   "Well, it takes a lot less than that to equal 'infinity' in most minds.   For millions of years we looked at the ocean and said, 'That is infinite.   It will accept our garbage and waste forever.'   We looked at the sky and said, 'That is infinite: it will hold an infinite amount of smoke.'   We like the idea of infinity.   A problem with infinity in it is easily solved.   How long can you pollute a planet infinitely large?   Easy: forever.   Stop thinking.  

"Then one day there are so many of us that the planet no longer seems infinitely large.  

"So we go elsewhere.   There are infinite resources in the rest of the solar system, aren't there?   I think you are one of the few people alive wise enough to realize that there are not infinite resources in the solar system, and sophisticated enough to have included that awareness in your plans."  

The senator now looked troubled.   He sipped something from a straw.   "Relate all this to your problem."  

"Do you remember a case from about eighty years ago, involving the song 'My Sweet Lord,' by George Harrison?"

"Remember it?   I did research on it.   My firm won."  

"Your firm convinced the court that Harrison had gotten the tune for that song from a song called 'He's So Fine,' written over ten years earlier.   Shortly thereafter Yoko Ono was accused of stealing 'You're My Angel' from the classic 'Makin' Whoopee,' written more than thirty years earlier.   Chuck Berry's estate eventually took John Lennon's estate to court over 'Come Together.'   Then in the late '80s the great Plagiarism Plague really got started in the courts.   From then on it was open season on popular composers, and still is.   But it really hit the fan at the turn of the century, when Brindle's Ringsong was shown to be 'substantially similar' to one of Corelli's concertos.   

"There are eighty-eight notes.   One hundred and seventy-six, if your ear is good enough to pick out quarter tones.   Add in rests and so forth, different time signatures.   Pick a figure for maximum number of notes a melody can contain.   I do not know the figure for the maximum possible number of melodies--too many variables--but I am sure it is quite high.  

"I   am certain that is not infinity.   

"For one thing, a great many of those possible arrays of eighty-eight notes will not be perceived as music, as melody, by the human ear.   Perhaps more than half.   They will not be hummable, whistleable, listenable--some will be actively unpleasant to hear.   Another large fraction will be so similar to each other as to be effectively identical: if you change three notes of the Moonlight Sonata, you have not created something new.  

"I do not know the figure for the maximum number of discretely appreciable melodies, and again I'm certain it is quite high, and again I am certain that it is not infinity.   There are sixteen billion of us alive, Senator, more than all the people that have ever lived.   Thanks to our technology, better than half of us have no meaningful work to do; fifty-four percent of our population is entered on the tax rolls as artists.   Because the synthesizer is so cheap and versatile, a majority of those artists are musicians, and a great many are composers.   Do you know what it is like to be a composer these days, Senator?"  

"I know a few composers."

"Who are still working?"  

"Well . . . three of 'em."  

"How often do they bring out a new piece?"  

Pause.   "I would say once every five years on the average.   Hmmm.   Never thought of it before, but--"  

" Did you know that at present two out of every five copyright submissions to the Music Division are rejected on the first computer search?"  

The old man's face had stopped registering surprise, other than for histrionic purposes, more than a century before; nonetheless, she knew she had rocked him.   "No, I did not."  

"Why would you know?   Who would talk about it?   But it is a fact nonetheless.   Another fact is that, when the increase in number of working composers is taken into account, the rate of submissions to the Copyright Office is decreasing significantly.   There are more composers than ever, but their individual productivity is declining.   Who is the most popular composer alive?"  

"Uh . . . I suppose that Vachandra fellow."  

"Correct.   He has been working for a little over fifty years.   If you began now to play every note he ever wrote, in succession, you would be done in twelve hours.   Wagner wrote well over sixty hours of music--the Ring alone runs twenty-one hours.   The Beatles--essentially two composers--produced over twelve hours of original music in less than ten years.   Why were the greats of yesteryear so much more prolific?  

"There were more enjoyable permutations of eighty-eight notes for them to find.."  

"Oh my," the senator whispered.  

"Now go back to the 1970s again.   Remember the Roots plagiarism case?   And the dozens like it that followed?   Around the same time a writer named van Vogt sued the makers of a successful film called Alien, for plagiarism of a story forty years later.   Two other writers named Bova and Ellison sued a television studio for stealing a series idea.   All three collected.  

"That ended the legal principle that one does not copyright ideas but arrangements of words.   The number of word arrangements is finite, but the number of ideas is much smaller.   Certainly, they can be retold in endless ways-- West Side Story is a brilliant reworking of Romeo and Juliet.   But it was only possible because Romeo and Juliet was in the public domain.   Remember too that of the finite number of stories that can be told, a certain number will be bad stories.   

"As for visual artists--well, once a man demonstrated in the laboratory an ability to distinguish between eighty-one distinct shades of colour accurately.   I think that's an upper limit.   There is a maximum amount of information that the eye is capable of absorbing, and much of that will be the equivalent of noise--"  

"But . . . but . . ."   This man was reputed never to have hesitated in any way under any circumstances.   "But there'll always be change  . . . there'll always be new discoveries, new horizons, new social attitudes, to infuse art with new--"  

"Not as fast as artists breed.   Do you know about the great split in literature at the beginning of the twentieth century?   The mainstream essentially abandoned the Novel of Ideas after Henry James, and turned its collective attention to the Novel of Character.   They had sucked that dry by mid-century, and they're still chewing on the pulp today.   Meanwhile a small group of writers, desperate for something new to write about, for a new story to tell, invented a new genre called science fiction.   They mined the future for ideas.   The infinite future--like the infinite coal and oil and copper they had then too.   In less than a century they had mined it out; there hasn't been a genuinely original idea in science fiction in over fifty years.   Fantasy has always been touted as the 'literature of infinite possibility'--but there is even a theoretical upper limit to the 'meaningfully impossible,' and we are fast reaching it."  

"We can create new art forms," he said.  

"People have been trying to create new art forms for a long time, sir.   Almost all fell by the wayside.   People just didn't like them."

"We'll learn to like them.   Damn it, we'll have to."

"And they'll help, for a while.   More new art forms have been born in the last two centuries than in the previous million years -- though none in the last fifteen years.   Scent-symphonies, tactile sculpture, kinetic sculpture, zero-gravity dance--they're all rich new fields, and they are generating mountains of new copyrights.   Mountains of finite size.   The ultimate bottleneck is this: that we have only five senses with which to apprehend art, and that is a finite number.   Can I have some water, please? "  

"Of course."  

The old man appeared to have regained his usual control, but the glass which emerged from the arm of her chair contained apple juice.   She ignored this and continued.  

"But that's not what I'm afraid of, Senator.   The theoretical heat-death of artistic expression is something we may never really approach in fact.   Long before that point, the game will collapse."  

She paused to gather her thoughts, sipped her juice.   A part of her mind noted that it harmonized with the recurrent cinnamon motif of Bulachevski's scent-symphony, which was still in progress.   

"Artists have been deluding themselves for centuries with the notion that they create.   In fact they do nothing of the sort.   They discover.   Inherent in the nature of reality are a number of combinations of musical tones that will be perceived as pleasing by a human central nervous system.   For millennia we have been discovering them, implicit in the universe--and telling ourselves that we 'created' them.   To create implies infinite possibility, to discover implies finite possibility.   As a species I think we will react poorly to having our noses rubbed in the fact that we are discoverers and not creators."  

She stopped speaking and sat very straight.   Unaccountably her feet hurt.   She closed her eyes, and continued speaking.  

"My husband wrote a song for me, on the occasion of our fortieth wedding anniversary.   It was our love in music, unique and special and intimate, the most beautiful melody I ever heard in my life.   It made him so happy to have written it.   Of his last ten compositions he had burned five for being derivative, and the others had all failed copyright clearance.   But this was fresh, special--he joked that my love for him had inspired him.   The next day he submitted it for clearance, and learned that it had been a popular air during his early childhood, and had already been unsuccessfully submitted fourteen times since its original registration.   A week later he burned all his manuscripts and working tapes and killed himself."

She was silent for a long time, and the senator did not speak.

"'Ars longa, vita brevis est,'" she said at last.   "There's been comfort of a kind in that for thousands of years.   But art is Iong, not infinite.   'The Magic goes away.'   One day we will use it up --unless we can learn to recycle it like any other finite resource."   Her voice gained strength.   "Senator, that bill has to fail, if I have to take you on to do it.   Perhaps I can't win-- but I'm going to fight you!   A copyright must not be allowed to last more than fifty years--after which it should be flushed from the memory banks of the Copyright Office.   We need selective voluntary amnesia if Discoverers of Art are to continue to work without psychic damage.   Facts should be remembered--but dreams?"   She shivered.    ". . . Dreams should be forgotten when we wake.   Or one day we will find ourselves unable to sleep.   Given eight billion artists with effective working lifetimes in excess of a century, we can no longer allow individuals to own their discoveries in perpetuity.   We must do it the way the human race did it for a million years--by forgetting, and rediscovering.     Because one day the infinite number of monkeys will have nothing else to write except the complete works of Shakespeare.     And they would probably rather not know that when it happens."  

Now she was finished, nothing more to say.     So was the scent-symphony, whose last motif was fading slowly from the air.     No clock ticked, no artifact hummed.     The stillness was complete, for perhaps half a minute.    

"If you live long enough," the senator said slowly at last, "there is nothing new under the sun."   He shifted in his great chair.   "If you're lucky, you die sooner than that.   I haven't heard a new dirty joke in fifty years."   He seemed to sit up straight in his chair.   "I will kill S.4217896."

She stiffened in shock.   After a time, she slumped slightly and resumed breathing.   So many emotions fought for ascendancy that she barely had time to recognize them as they went by.   She could not speak.  

"Furthermore," he went on, "I will not tell anyone why I'm doing it.   It will begin the end of my career in public life, which I did not ever plan to leave, but you have convinced me that I must.   I am both . . . glad, and--"   His face tightened with pain.   "--and bitterly sorry that you told me why I must."  

"So am I, sir," she said softly, almost inaudibly.  

He looked at her sharply.   "Some kinds of fight, you can't feel good even if you win them.   Only two kinds of people take on fights like that: fools, and remarkable people.   I think you are a remarkable person, Mrs. Martin."  

She stood, knocking over her juice.   "I wish to God I were a fool," she cried, feeling her control begin to crack at last.  

"Dorothy!" he thundered.  

She flinched as if he had struck her.   "Sir?" she said automatically.    

"Do not go to pieces!   That is an order.   You're wound up too tight; the pieces might not go back together again."  

"So what?" she asked bitterly.  

He was using the full power of his voice now, the voice which had stopped at least one war.   "So how many friends do you think a man my age has got, damn it?   Do you think minds like yours are common?   We share this business now, and that makes us friends.   You are the first person to come out of that elevator and really surprise me in a quarter of a century.   And soon, when the word gets around that I've broken faith, people will stop coming out of the elevator.   You think like me, and I can't afford to lose you."   He smiled, and the smile seemed to melt decades from his face.   "Hang on, Dorothy," he said, "and we will comfort each other in our terrible knowledge.   All right?"  

For several moments she concentrated exclusively on her breathing, slowing and regularizing it.   Then, tentatively, she probed at her emotions.  

"Why," she said wonderingly, "It is better . . . shared."

"Anything is."

She looked at him then, and tried to smile and finally succeeded.   "Thank you, Senator."

He returned her smile as he wiped all recordings of their conversation.   "Call me Bob."  

"Yes, Robert."