A Penny for Your Thoughts

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Literature Text

This story is based on the essay, "Why We Need Tougher Mind Control Laws to Prevent Thought Piracy."  Read it here:…

Timothy received the implant at age seven; his parents were envious.
"When I was his age, I had to learn to read by memorizing the sound of each letter," said his father.  
"And remember doing math with a calculator?" his mother said, shaking her head.  "You're so lucky, Timothy."
But all Timothy could think of was that his friend Jamie's implant had twice as much active memory and a massive molecular drive.  He didn't tell his parents that he felt obsolete, though; now that he had been connected, he understood why his parents couldn't afford many nice real world things.  
Timothy smiled and rubbed the front of his skull, where a tiny shaven spot could be felt just above his frontal cortex.  "I can't wait to go play online for real."
"I remember the first time I went online..." his mother began.  But Timothy was too eager to listen to the rest of the story.  
"I'm gonna go try it out," he said.  
"Alright.  Be careful though."
Timothy nodded vigorously.  He sat down on the couch and closed his eyes.  As he connected to the internet, he felt his mother come over and run her fingers through his hair, feeling the roughness of new skin.  
"He's growing so fast."

Timothy chose one of his favorite worlds, a fantasy world with towering islands floating above a sea of clouds.  The spawn point was at the brink of a sandstone cliff.  Cool wind washed over his skin, and he opened his mouth and tasted it on his tongue.  
He threw himself off the precipice and took flight.  His hair blew into his eyes and he gave a whoop of joy.  
...But wait.  There was one thing missing.  He transformed himself into a winged tiger.  That was better.  

* * *

Later that day he flew below the mist layer and landed in a garden of strange flowers.  A young fairy was sitting in the ruffles of a dainty blue blossom, brushing her nose with a pollen-covered stamen.  
"Cool avatar," she said.
"Thanks," Timothy replied.  "Yours is nice too."
"Let's get to know each other."
They exchanged an introductory archive of memories.  Helen was his age, but she lived in Australia.  
"Wow, your mom bakes really good cookies.  I could replay this memory all day," Helen said.  
"Oh yeah.  It's my favorite."
"Thanks for sharing it," Helen said.  She cocked her head at him.  "Hey, I know where we can get more great recipes.  Want to see?"
Timothy followed her through the internet.  Helen obviously had a faster implant, and she often had to slow down for him and wait.  It seemed like she was taking a very roundabout route, and they passed through many odd-looking sites that he had never seen before.  When he passed through each one, it was like putting on a layer of clothes, until he felt he must be totally swathed from head to foot.  
In less than a microsecond they arrived.  There was no visual representation of the site except for an old wooden ship with black sails crossing a deep blue ocean; otherwise, it was all pure thoughtfiles.  There were a lot of ads.  
"Here we are," said Helen proudly.  
Timothy interfaced with a search tool and used it to look for memories of cookie recipes.  1,972,763,408 results came up; he downloaded them all into his implant enjoyed them 30,000 at a pop—it took almost three seconds to go through them all.  When he was done, he gave a delicious sigh.  
"That was great."
Helen smiled.  "Do you like reading?"
He fired off another query and almost a trillion results popped up: "Forty Fun Facts About the Solar System," "The New Chinese Bible," "Matrices, 3rd Ed.," "A Biography of John Locke," "Romance on the Prairie," and many, many more.  He downloaded them all and opened the first book to the first page.  And there he saw it.  "All rights reserved."
Timothy stiffened.  "Uh oh."  
"What is it?"
"Helen...  Are these files copyrighted?"
"Well, yes...but no one will know we accessed them," she said.  "That's why I went through all the masks, so no one would know who we were."
Timothy hastily deleted the books.  "We can't just read books like this!  It's piracy."
"No one will catch us."  
"My mom and dad would get upset at me."  He sent her a copy of his anxiety.  
"Well my dad says copyright is stupid," Helen said, sending back an emotion that was pitying yet vaguely contemptuous.  "He says anyone who won't pirate is a dummy."
Timothy scowled at her.  "My dad says that piracy is stealing."
"My dad and I have trillions of books and thoughts, so we know better than you," Helen said.  
"No you don't," Timothy protested.  "We know plenty."
"Okay then, how many books has your dad read?"
"Tons," Timothy said.  "In fact, my uncle works for the Thought Industry Association of America and he produces all the thoughts in the world."  (It was something of an exaggeration, but he wanted to impress her.)
Helen's eyes grew wide and her translucent wings fluttered.  "The TIAA?"
Timothy nodded proudly.
"I'm going home," said Helen.  She disappeared.  
Timothy pouted at the spot where she had been standing.  Then he shook off the extra layers and went home too.  He couldn't quite bring himself to delete the fresh, warm cookies.  
"You should do exercise while you're on the internet," his mother said.  "It's not good to sit on the couch all day.  When you go online next time, use the treadmill."

* * *

The treadmill started and Timothy began walking at a nice, easy pace of two miles per hour.  He recorded the motion of his right and left leg taking a single step, then threw a loop around the action and set it to cycle for one hour.  When he was satisfied that everything was running smoothly, he headed onto the internet.  
His dad was waiting in the family's virtual living room.  It was much better than the real living room; it had gilt wall paper and oil paintings and an oriental carpet with intricate designs in it.  The orchids in the ming vase on the side table never died; the clownfish in the corner aquarium never needed food; and the rug never grew dusty.  Everything was much better than the real world.  
"Did you see the news?" his dad asked.  "They shut down a big pirate site.  It happened last night."
His father sent him a picture of a very familiar ship with black sails.  Timothy's mouth went dry with the taste of stolen cookies.  He quickly ran a program to keep his face innocuous.  
"About time," his father said.  "Those thieves had practically the whole sum of human knowledge up for anyone to download."
"That's rotten," Timothy said.  
"Some people think they have a right to be omniscient at the expense of artists and writers," his father said, shaking his head.  "In my day, we called that stealing."
Timothy looked down at the carpet and traced the design with his finger.  Then he realized that he was copying it and stopped.  
"It's a war on creativity, that's what it is," his father continued.  "Why, I could have pirated this whole house for nothing.  Instead I paid a fair price to the modeler who designed it—.00031 coins."
His mother materialized in her favorite chair and his father turned to her.  
"Did you hear?  They brought down the #2 pirate site in the world.  The ringleaders are getting a day of virtual confinement for every file they shared.  They'll be in prison till the sun burns out.  For whatever good it does."
She looked annoyed.  "I suppose they've already been restored from backup."
"I remember when criminals who were sent to prison stayed there."
Timothy didn't look up from the carpet.  He stared hard at the pattern.  "Dad?  ...What will happen to the people who downloaded stuff from the site?"  He was tempted to Google the answer instead of asking his father, but he was afraid that the police would see his search and be suspicious.  
"Hmm?  Oh, nothing.  If the police enforced thought-sharing strictly, they would have to put everyone in jail."
"Everyone?" Timothy asked, looking up.  
His father crossed his legs and looked contemplative.  "Timothy, when you read a book, do you share your thoughts about that book with anyone?"
"Of course," said Timothy.  
"Well, according to copyright law, that's stealing.  But no one knows it."
"But why?  I didn't take anything."
"But the person you shared your memory of the book with didn't have to read it for themselves, and so the writer didn't get any money."
"You share your memories of books with me," Timothy protested.  
"Only if I've bought an extra copy for you already," his father said.  
"Oh.  I suppose..."
His father leaned forward.  "This of it this way, Tim—suppose you had a really cool dream, and you wanted to sell it on Amazon.  But then suppose you shared your dream with a friend, and they took it and gave it away to everyone on the internet for free—without paying you anything for it.  That wouldn't be very nice, would it?"
"Or suppose you had an interesting thought, and a hacker broke into your mind and stole it.  Then everyone in the world would be able to think your thought without giving you a microcoin."
Timothy nodded, his heart sinking.  
"The problem is that no one realizes they're doing anything wrong," said his father.  "They think it's just harmless 'sharing.'"
"So what if someone uploaded a memory of eating food?" Timothy asked.  "Like, say, candy, for example?"
"According to the law, all thoughts are copyrighted as soon as they are fixed in the tangible medium of your hippocampus or implant," said his father.  "So yes, all memories of eating food would be copyrighted.  Unless of course the original creator decided to release them into the public domain."
A glimmer of hope pierced the gloom.  Timothy asked, "The public domain?"  
"Yes.  If a person and all their copies, clones, etc. die without backing up (unlikely, but it can happen) they completely cease to exist in both the real and virtual worlds.  When that happens, a timer begins ticking on all that person's copyrights.  70 years after they fully cease to exist in every form, their words, thoughts, music, memories, movies, and dreams become public domain.  That means anyone can use them without needing to get permission first."  
"How do I tell if something is in the public domain?"
"Just look at the date of publication," his father said.  "Anything created before 1920 is in the public domain."
"But there were no thoughts back then," Timothy said.  
"Sure there were," his father said.  "It's just that people couldn't record and store thoughts like we can today.  Back in those days musicians couldn't even collect fees when people got songs stuck in their head."  
His mother shook her head.  "What a time that must have been."
"You see, Timothy," his father continued, "If people didn't have an incentive to think or dream, they wouldn't.  And then no one would have any new thoughts.  Everyone would stop thinking because there wouldn't be any money in it."
"But you said people had thoughts in 1920 even though there was no copyright."
"Yes, you're right.  What I mean is that there were no professional thinkers in those days."
"It would be bad if people stopped thinking," Timothy said.
"Exactly.  But try telling that to the pirates."
Timothy paused, then forged ahead, "Dad..."
He chose his next words carefully.  "Do pirates know more than everybody else because they read so many books?"
His dad gave him a sharp look.  "Of course not.  You don't have to know everything in the world to be smart.  Only the police need to have access to all of human knowledge, and that's only because they need to know everything in order to protect us.  If you have access to Wikipedia, you have more knowledge than you'll ever need.  Pirates download because they think they're entitled to take everyone's property for free, not because they want to learn.  That's just an excuse."
Timothy felt some small relief; he didn't care for the thought of being a dummy.  It felt too much like being obsolete.
A policeman materialized in the room.  
"Hello there, I'm officer Pettijohn."
Timothy froze.  They had come for him!  He would have to go to prison forever!  Please God, I swear I'll never steal any more thoughts ever again if you help me!
His father stood.  "What can we do for you, sir?"
"It's a matter of copyright," the policeman said.  "Some stolen thoughts about cookies."
Timothy wanted to protest, to plead, to run—but he was glued to the carpet and his lips were sealed shut.  
"Oh?" his father said somberly.
"It seems someone posted a thought about your wife's cookies on a pirate site."
"Which one?  It wasn't the one that just got shut down, was it?"
The policeman nodded reluctantly.  "They had a backup hidden somewhere."
His father sighed.  "They always do, don't they?"
"Well, I just came by to tell you that we filed a stolen property report on your behalf.  We'll pursue the uploader."
"Thank you; I appreciate all your good work," his father said.
"Just part of the job."  The policeman departed.  
Hastily Timothy erased every memory of the cookies, Helen, masks, and thought-sharing.  
"He seemed like a nice man," his mother said.  
"Yes he did."
"I wonder how they got hold of my recipe.  I didn't even think it was valuable."
Timothy cleared his throat.  "I really like copyright, dad.  I'll never think a thought that doesn't belong to me, ever.  I swear."
"That's my boy," his father said.  "Honest people always pay for knowledge.  Only thieves think freely."
A young man accidentally pirates copyrighted baked goods with his mind.
This work takes part in the Future of Copyright Contest. See here:…
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, so share as much as you like. :)
© 2013 - 2024 Talllama
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adoomer's avatar
Congratulations on winning the contest - great story!