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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 2

She wanted to cry out, and savagely refused herself permission.   Control, whispered a part of her mind, while another part shouted that a man such as this did not lightly use the words "I cannot." But he had to be wrong.   Perhaps the sentence was only a bargaining gambit . . .  

No sign of the internal conflict showed; her voice was calm and measured.   "Sir, I have not come here to lobby.   I simply wanted to inform you personally that our organization intends to make a no-strings campaign donation in the amount of--"  

"Mrs. Martin, please!   Before you commit yourself, I repeat, I cannot help you.   Regardless of the sum offered."  

"Sir, it is substantial."  

"I'm sure.   Nonetheless it is insufficient."  

She knew she should not ask.   "Senator, why?"   

He frowned, a frightening sight.  

"Look," she said, the desperation almost showing through now, "keep the pro rata if it buys me an answer!   Until I'm convinced that my mission is utterly hopeless, I must not abandon it: answering me is the quickest way to get me out of your office.   Your scanners have watched me quite thoroughly, you know that I'm not abscamming you."  

Still frowning, he nodded.   "Very well.   I cannot accept your campaign donation because I have already accepted one from another source."  

Her very worst secret fear was realized.   He had already taken money from the other side.   The one thing any politician must do, no matter how powerful, is stay bought.   It was all over.  

      All her panic and tension vanished, to be replaced by a sadness so great and so pervasive that for a moment she thought it might literally stop her heart.  

Too late!   Oh my darling, I was too late!   

She realized bleakly that there were too many people in her life, too many responsibilities and entanglements.   It would be at least a month before she could honourably suicide.

"--you all right, Mrs. Martin?" the old man was saying, sharp concern in his voice.  

She gathered discipline around her like a familiar cloak.   "Yes, sir, thank you.   Thank you for speaking plainly."   She stood up and smoothed her skirt.   "And for your--"  

"Mrs. Martin."  

"--gracious hos--Yes?"  

"Will you tell me your arguments?   Why shouldn't I support '896?"  

She blinked sharply.   "You just said it would be pointless and cruel."  

"If I held out the slightest hope, yes, it would be.   If you'd rather not waste your time, I will not compel you.   But I am curious."  

"Intellectual curiosity?"  

He seemed to sit up a little straighter--surely an illusion, for a prosthetic spine is not motile.   "Mrs. Martin, I happen to be committed to a course of action.   That does not mean I don't care whether the action is good or bad."  

"Oh."   She thought for a moment.   "If I convince you, you will not thank me."  

"I know.   I saw the look on your face a moment ago, and . . . it reminded me of a night many years ago.   Night my mother died.   If you've got a sadness that big, and I can take on a part of it, I should try.   Sit down."  

She sat.  

"Now tell me: what's so damned awful about extending copyright to meet the realities of modern life?   Customarily I try to listen to both sides before accepting a campaign donation--but this seemed so open and shut, so straightforward . . ."  

"Senator, that bill is a short-term boon, to some artists--and a long-term disaster for all artists, on Earth and off."

"'In the long run, Mr. President--'," he began, quoting Keynes.  

"--we are some of us still alive," she finished softly and pointedly.   "Aren't we? You've put your finger on part of the problem."  

"What is this disaster you speak of?" he asked.  

"The worst psychic trauma the race has yet suffered."  

He studied her carefully and frowned again.   "Such a possibility is not even hinted at in your literature or materials."  

"To do so would precipitate the trauma.   At present only a handful of people know, even in my organization.   I'm telling you because you asked, and because I am certain that you are the only person recording this conversation.   I'm betting that you will wipe the tape."  

He blinked, and sucked at the memory of his teeth.   "My, my," he said mildly.   "Let me get comfortable." He had the chair recline sharply and massage his lower limbs; she saw that he could still watch her by overhead mirror if he chose.   His eyes were closed.   "All right, go ahead."  

She needed no time to choose her words.   "Do you know how old art is, Senator?"  

"As old as man, I suppose.   In fact, it may be part of the definition."  

"Good answer," she said.   " Remember that.   But for all present-day intents and purposes, you might as well say that art is a little over 15,600 years old.   That's the age of the oldest surviving artwork, the cave paintings at Lascaux.   Doubtless the cave-painters sang, and danced, and even told stories--but these arts left no record more durable than the memory of a man.   Perhaps it was the story tellers who next learned how to preserve their art.   Countless more generations would pass before a workable method of musical notation was devised and standardized.   Dancers only learned in the last few centuries how to leave even the most rudimentary record of their art.   

"The racial memory of our species has been getting longer since Lascaux.   The biggest single improvement came with the invention of writing: our memory-span went from a few generations to as many as the Bible has been around.   But it took a massive effort to sustain a memory that long: it was difficult to hand-copy manuscripts faster than barbarians, plagues, or other natural disasters could destroy them.   The obvious solution was the printing press: to make and disseminate so many copies of a manuscript or art work that some would survive any catastrophe.  

"But with the printing press a new idea was born.   Art was suddenly mass-marketable, and there was money in it.   Writers decided that they should own the right to copy their work.   The notion of copyright was waiting to be born.  

"Then in the last hundred and fifty years came the largest quantum jumps in human racial memory.   Recording technologies.   Visual: photography, film, video, Xerox, holo.   Audio: low-fi, hi-fi, stereo, and digital.   Then computers, the ultimate in information storage.   Each of these technologies generated new art forms, and new ways of preserving the ancient art forms.   And each required a reassessment of the idea of copyright.  

"You know the system we have now, unchanged since the mid-twentieth-century.   Copyright ceases to exist fifty years after the death of the copyright holder.   But the size of the human race has increased drastically since the l900s--and so has the average human lifespan.   Most people in developed nations now expect to live to be a hundred and twenty; you yourself are considerably older.   And so, naturally, S. '896 now seeks to extend copyright into perpetuity."  

"Well," the senator interrupted, "what is wrong with that?   Should a man's work cease to be his simply because he has neglected to keep on breathing?   Mrs. Martin, you yourself will be wealthy all your life if that bill passes.   Do you truly wish to give away your late husband's genius?"  

She winced in spite of herself.  

"Forgive my bluntness, but that is what I understand least about your position."  

"Senator, if I try to hoard the fruits of my husband's genius, I may cripple my race.   Don't you see what perpetual copyright implies? It is perpetual racial memory!   That bill will give the human race an elephant's memory.   Have you ever seen a cheerful elephant?"  

He was silent for a time.   Then: "I'm still not sure I understand the problem."  

"Don't feel bad, sir.   The problem has been directly under the nose of all of us for at least eighty years, and hardly anyone has noticed."  

"Why is that?"  

"I think it comes down to a kind of innate failure of mathematical intuition, common to most humans.   We tend to confuse any sufficiently high number with infinity."  

"Well, anything above ten to the eighty-fifth might as well be infinity."  

"Beg pardon?"  

"Sorry--I should not have interrupted.   That is the current best-guess for the number of atoms in the Universe.   Go on."

Melancholy Elephants Part 3