“The drummer for Discordance was found guilty of Creativity in a case brought to court by the Music Harmony division of Sonic Substance Records.”
Kavita frowned, but by this time the expression was just a reflex. All the emotion behind it had been spent. Her finger hovered over the “x” on her slate. She didn’t need to watch the National Summary News present the bullet points of a story she had lived inside for years.
When a picture—a very villainous-looking picture—of Valini popped onto the screen, Kavi pressed the “x,” but she did it so lightly that the news application didn’t turn off.
Valini wasn’t the drummer for Discordance anymore. She was the former drummer of Discordance. She was a former drummer period.
But she wasn’t a former friend. Not for Kavita’s part anyway. Kavi checked her device again, even though she was almost out the door. But there was still nothing. There were messages, from her brother, from all of her other bandmates. But nothing from Vali.
The news image of Valini swiped to a video of a reporter interviewing Kavita as she came out of the courtroom.
“Tell me, as the band’s leader, what is the future of Discordance now? Will you find a new drummer? Will you disband and follow individual careers? The fans are dying to know.”
Kavita seen herself in interviews dozens of times before, and she’d felt many different emotions at seeing herself. Mortification, dissatisfaction, pride, amusement. This time she felt only anxiety.
But it wasn’t the anxiety of what had already happened. It was the rising anxiety of anticipation.
She paused the broadcast long enough to transfer the audio to her earworm before she headed out the front door and to the train station. She had waited long enough, given Valini enough space. She had to present her discovery.
A nauseating wave of nervousness fluttered through her chest, like a moth trapped in a glass jar. She took a deep breath to calm the fluttering.
Ever since Valini had been taken in for practicing Creativity without an Artist’s license, all her instruments confiscated, all her digital workstation accounts locked and frozen, Kavita had become a research historian. She had started by trying to find some way of getting Vali out of trouble. Some way that her lawyers wouldn’t think of. And in doing so, in attempting to think outside of the rigid construct, “think outside of the box” as people used to say, Kavita was practicing, in a way, the very thing for which her friend had just been convicted.
Neither Kavi nor the lawyers had found a way to save Vali, to preserve her career. But what Kali had found since then might preserve Vali’s right to do the very thing she had done.
Kavi had actually found something, something that wasn’t even hidden, an old law that didn’t seem to worry or threaten any authority she had asked about it. Either the people she’d spoken to didn’t understand what she’d discovered, or uncovered, or else she was the one who didn’t understand.
She hadn’t wanted to talk to Vali until she was sure about what she’d found. Sometimes, it seemed amazing. Sometimes too good to be true. Sometimes it seemed toothless. Sometimes it seemed dangerous.
Laws and policies took long to change when those with the power to change them had no interest in doing so. But if someone was interested, if someone was threatened by a law, a law that protected all, then that law could be changed in a matter of hours.
So even if what Kavita had found was real, the minute someone tried to use it, everyone would know about it. Everyone could use it. Not just Artists, but everyone. At-home dabblers, neighborhood graffiti kids, and even professional Content Constructors. Even people like Kavita herself, and her former bandmate.
It might not be real, Kavita thought, trying not to get her hopes up too high.
This discovery—uncovery—that Kavita had made belonged to everyone, just as Art once did. And if everyone knew it belonged to them, maybe they would fight for it.
And if everyone fought for it, maybe it could become real.
Kavita watched the rest of the NSN broadcast.
They were in the part of the story where they pulled back from the specific Conkers—or Content Constructers as the NSN still called them, as if that meant the news anchors were being respectful. They were now taking a look at the larger context, “debating” the contrast between Art and Content.
As soon as the ever-smiling news anchor with the plastic cheeks began crooning about how lucky society was to have Artists whose original creations entertained, inspired, and enlightened, Kavita’s finger began to hover again. And when that same anchor’s hollow eyes lit up at the notion that Artists provided inspiration especially to Content Constructors, Kavita’s finger dropped on the “x.”
She swiped up to open the default application on all of her devices. A word processor.
She smiled. She began typing. Maybe this was what she would say to Vali. Maybe it was just what she was saying to herself. Maybe it was that article she’d been wanting to write. It wasn’t poetry. But then, as much as Kavi loved poetry, she wasn’t much of a poet. Vali was the artist. License or no license.
Kavi just loved to write.
The old folks would tell the young that creativity once belonged to everyone. And what was more, every creation could be claimed by the one who created it. Thievery happened, of course. It always had. So long as the immoral and the unscrupulous existed, or the desperate, thievery of art would exist.
But somehow, somewhere along the way, slowly, slowly, that had changed.
Creativity became reserved for the privileged few, those who created Art, while the rest of humanity settled for making Content, that which was carefully and purposefully constructed.
There is nothing wrong with Constructed Content. Nothing wrong at all.
People consume Conk (as Constructed Content has come to be called by everyone except for arrogant academics and insincere news anchors). People are entertained and educated. Conk makes people feel and think. People re-consume their favorites. They have passionate discussions about Conk over dinner, at school, leaning against the doorframe of their office’s break room.
People do complain about a lack of originality sometimes.
But then an Artist would create something new, something fresh. And the people would react. Some would be amazed. Some offended. Some would be envious. Some reverent.
Conk was approachable. Conk was rejuvenating. But Art…Art was mysterious. Art was elevating.
Many aspire to be Artists, but the licenses in the various Artistic fields—music, architecture, design, painting, and so on—are artificially limited. Many apply to scholarships and special programs. But it has been clear for at least a few generations that there is a…legacy system in place. A lot of people who are accepted into those special Artist programs share last names with those who are already Artists.
What people create in the privacy of their own homes is up to them, but the moment they share that work in any public forum, it loses “creation” status and becomes public property, unless it is protected by law. So the expression of an unlicensed originator is technically Art, up until the moment it is shared. Only the expressions of Artists retain “creation” status when made public. By design. By law. By the grace of the spirits of inspiration, who whisper only in the ears of true Artists.
It’s interesting then, that so many Artists “borrow inspiration” from these public expressions. They benefit from the protections and privileges of holding that precious Artists’ License.
An unlicensed originator has no claim to their own work.
So that work must stand on its own, without any history or provenance.
Some believe that this is the purest form of art.
Others believe that those who put art into the world and give up all claims to it were cruel fools, not just for giving up credit, renown, and even profit, but for willingly surrendering a piece of one’s self, and for concealing the nature of the person who created the art. These folk believe that who and what the originator was mattered.
Still others believe that the truest Art is that which is made and never shared.
But then…if it is never shared, if it never reaches the mind, the heart, the soul of another, is it truly Art?
While the debate smolders on in some form or another, people continue to create and Artists continue to Create. Any given individual enjoys acknowledgment, acclaim, compensation, or any combination, or lack thereof, based on their licensing status. Content Constructors could make a comfortable living, for example, despite having no license. Some even reach the highest heights of fame.
Such were the members of the band Discordance.
Such are the members of the band Discordance to this day. All but one…
Kavita stopped writing and stared out of the window for the next five minutes, not wanting to miss the billboard wall near Crowcall Station.
A few weeks ago, over one night the advertisements had been covered up by a mural. This was something that Kavi and the rest of the city’s residents had begun seeing more and more of over the past five years (the same five years during which Discordance went from being the Sunday night act at the light arcade near Vali’s house to being the headlining act at the outdoor Empyrean Theater).
Graffiti art signed by those who call themselves “Unlicensed Artists” would pop up overnight on the sides of buildings, over old paper billboards, on a length of sidewalk. Everything from fields of flowers with subtle color palettes to smirking figures drawn with bold shapes and lines. Teams of individuals would be needed to create the art in such a short period of time, yet the works were always signed by a single name.
One of the most famous of these was Padosiyuva, the Neighborhood Kids. Pado was believed be made up of a rotating group of youths between the ages of nine and eighteen, who were being supplied their environment-proof art supplies by sympathetic and supportive neighborhood adults. (Kavi and the others had pitched in their proceeds a few times through invite-only virtual fundraiser events.)
Kavita had so far only seen images of Pado’s art posted by people walking by it, before it got taken down. The art got taken down so quickly because Pado wasn’t painting on the walls of abandoned buildings, or on sidewalks in disrepair.
Pado had the audacity to paint over the work of Mural Artists. At first, it seemed as if they were targeting all different Artists. But soon people began to make a connection. Some Mural Artists never got their art “defaced.” Some always did.
Especially the Artist Nerakdas. She was famous for her breathtaking murals of nature in the middle of a metropolitan city square. A forest with light breaking through the leaves and branches. A heaving sea under thunderous gray clouds. Sometimes she added something fantastical, like a flock of fairies perched among the blossoms of trees in spring.
But it turned out that all those beautiful murals were “inspired” by public expressions.
She had stolen the art, paid to have the public expressions all taken down from any sharing hubs, and recreated the expression with a few of her own modifications. She had then presented each expression as her own creation. Even if she had tried to turn a profit, her thievery would have been tolerated, because it was just the way it was. None of those expressions had been official Art until Nerakdas took them and re-expressed them.
A small local news magazine had done some investigating and traced most of the mural art that Nerakdas created to a single source of public expression. To protect this person, the writer of the article didn’t name them, but instead spun a hypothetical story. The story of a young artist of sublime talent, who would likely never be licensed unless she inherited some long-lost rich old uncle’s fortune, whose work brightened the lives of those who saw it, whose work was stolen by an Artist of privileged breeding and middling talent, whose heart was broken, whose friends gathered around her, trying and failing to comfort her, until they themselves picked up a brush…
…and became Padosiyuva.
Kavita took a deep and bracing breath. If they can stand up for their friend, so can I.
The train passed by an old paper billboard that was covered in a blanket of white paint. A Pado original lay somewhere underneath, invisible to Kavi’s eyes, not erased, but buried. For good. Pado never painted the same mural twice.
When Kavita got to Valini’s door, she didn’t hesitate to ring the doorbell and knock. She had already decided she would wait if Vali wasn’t home. She would call the others and tell them she wouldn’t make it to auditions the next day. Discordance had decided to audition for a new drummer.
But Vali opened the door, stepped toward Kavi, and embraced her. “Sorry I haven’t called you back.”
Kavi smiled and hugged her back. “I get it. The others too. They all say ‘hi’ and then everything I’m going to say.”
Kavi had pictured being offered a cold drink and getting through some small talk before transitioning gently into the main reason for her visit.
The drink was offered, but even as Vali was reaching into the fridge for it, she said, “Do you remember the conversation we had the night before our last concert?”
Kavi was caught off guard. She hadn’t expected that Vali would want to talk about what had happened to her.
They only had a last concert with Vali because Sonic Substance had come up with a “brilliant” idea. A despicable idea. They wanted Vali to announce that she had stolen those beats she claimed to have created herself from an Artist, the very Artist who had actually stolen those beats from Vali. She was supposed to give some speech about how she had always aspired to be an Artist, how reaching the heights of fame as a Content Constructor had filled her with a false sense of her own talent. She would apologize and promise that she would not be tempted again. She would promise that every beat that came from her drum from that point forward would be constructed with care and purpose.
But Kavi knew that Sonic Substance would have let Valini hang. It was their outspoken fans, flooding Sonic Substance’s offices with requests, who made the farewell concert happen.
“You told us you had decided not to apologize, not to lie,” Kavi said. “You told us that you would understand if we hated you for ruining everything.”
“And not a single one of you did. I’m the one who’s been acting like I hate you.” Valini shook her head. “I don’t. I…should have known how you would react.” She wiped her nose. “I should have known.”
“You did know. That’s why you told us ahead of time. You trusted us to understand and to keep our mouths shut.” Kavi set down her drink. “Actually, we thought that you would hate us for not, I don’t know, breaking up the band or something, out of solidarity.”
Valini’s eyes widened. “No, don’t do that. The world needs Discordance.”
Kavi smiled as her friend turned to pull a bag of popcorn out of her pantry. Vali poured the popcorn into a bowl and set it between them.
“They call us Discordance,” Kavi said, “but we’re just flotsam riding on the stream of constructed content.”
Vali widened her eyes. “That’s really good. What are you, a poet?”
Kavi laughed and flicked popcorn at her. “None of us has made a splash in that stream, or even a ripple going in the same direction. Except you.”
“I’m the splash of water in the face of humanity?” Vali chuckled and snorted.
“Yeah, okay. Not all of humanity. But the ones who listen to us. And at this point, that’s a lot of people, Vali.”
“A lot of people listen to you,” Vali corrected. “My name is already being stricken from the records. Did they use the replacement name I submitted?”
“Oh, what name? Fart Vibrations?”
“Full name ‘Fartivia Alberta Vibrations.’”
“They went with the name I submitted. Original Drummer of Discordance. It’ll always be abbreviated.”
“ODD.” Vali glanced down at the popcorn and nodded.
Kali took a breath. It was time to get into it.
“Sister Cyst stole our work, especially your drumbeats. And they’re allowed to just do it because they are Artists and we’re just…we’re just a bunch of Conkers.”
Vali pointed a finger up. “Talented Conkers. People love our Conk. Our Conk is inspiring.”
“Our Art is inspiring.”
Vali furrowed her brows. It wasn’t a wince. It was more like the glitch and pause of her mind processing an obvious yet somehow inconceivable piece of information.
“Creating art is our birthright,” Kavita said. “Most of us only dare to claim a part of that birthright. Some don’t claim any of it. And that’s fine if they don’t want to. But a lot of people want to. And they don’t. They don’t, because they can’t. They’re not allowed. We’re not allowed. You’re not allowed. They’ve told you that you’ve lost everything.”
Vali frowned. “I have lost everything, I mean in one part of my life anyway.” Her frown softened. She straightened and raised her drink. “At least I went out with a bang.”
Kavita clinked the drink. “That’s to you and your performance that night. But you’re wrong. The performance was how the constructed story ends. The big ‘screw you’ concert—pardon my language.”
Vali sighed, and her brow pinched in that expression of fondness she got when she thought Kavi was being relentlessly wholesome.
“But how does the real story of a real person end?” Kavi said. “How does your story end? Better yet, how does it continue beyond that night?”
Vali nodded. “I’ll keep drumming,” she said, as she drummed her fingers on the kitchen table. “And I’ll put it out there. Maybe someone will know it’s me. Maybe I have a signature that some people will recognize. Or maybe not. And maybe someone will take the beats I make and claim them as their own. And sell them. And I can never make those same beats again without violating the law.” Vali shrugged. “That would be sad. But I have to drum. I have to.”
Kavi peered at her. “I found something.” She reached for her bag and pulled out her slate. She tapped it awake. “There used to be these laws back in the day that protected art.”
Vali raised a brow. “Back in the day?”
Kali swiped to her notes file. “No, listen. This is different. These laws—they’re called ‘copyright.’ I think every country, almost every country had them. And the laws protected the creations of anyone, not just a Licensed Artist.”
“Copyright? I don’t like the sound of that. Sounds like the ‘right to copy.’ How is that different from what the Artists do these days?”
“Some Artists. They’re not all bad.”
Kali turned her slate around. “This, see this symbol? You mark your work with it and with your name and the date, the year usually, I think. And it’s protected.”
“Just like that? No fees, no forms. Just a magic little ‘c’ in a circle?” Vali twisted her mouth.
“No, you’ve got a point. This law is still active. But no one abides by it anymore. And so if only one person tried to use it, it would probably go nowhere. From what I can tell that’s what happened over time. I still need to dig a little deeper on that part of the research. But look, let’s say we spread the word to a small group of people, who start using the symbol to protect their work in a closed share network. Then we strategically let it filter out into other closed share networks, so it stays ‘protected’ kind of. But more and more work has the symbol on it.”
“Multiple closed networks might as well be the public network.”
“But that’s the point, to re-establish the use of the copyright symbol in the public slowly enough that it gives people time to learn about it and understand what it means, and how and when it protects them and even how and when it doesn’t. But the point is also to spread the word fast enough that the symbol becomes too pervasive for officials to stop its use. It’s all legal.”
Vali sighed. “I don’t want to read any legal documents. You’re going to have to explain it to me.”
Vali’s main monitor activated and the bottom frame indicator began to blink and ding. Vali turned around.
Kavi tilted her head to see into the living room through the kitchen doorway. “What’s that?”
“I set an alert for any news stories where I’m mentioned, specifically the whole…scandal.”
“Vali, why would you?” Kavita said as they both moved closer to the monitor. “We told you we’d filter that garbage for you.”
“Yeah, I set filters. This is just the NSN. Scraped clean and sanitized for my ego’s protection.”
As the screen undimmed and an image appeared, Kavi gasped and put a hand to her mouth. She glanced over at her former bandmate, her friend.
The audio kicked in.
“…like others of their murals appeared overnight in the Allspice District. And as you can see, a crowd is beginning to gather and leave mementos on the digital corkboard, including buttons and ticket stubs from concerts they’ve attended…”
“It’s a Pado,” Vali said.
Kavi glanced back at the monitor. The camera operator lowered the view to sweep across the crowd, but raised and widened it again to show the mural. Vali was right. The signature across the top right corner was “Padosiyuva.”
The mural was an image of Valini, her arms raised above drums that were swelling with vibration lines, raised above shimmering symbols, holding drumsticks surrounded by electric sparks. Her hair rose in the air as she flicked her head to the rhythm of her own playing. Her eyes were closed. She was in her own world. But she was sharing that world, conducting it through her drums for whoever was listening.
Pado’s murals didn’t usually have titles, but this one did.
The Drummer for Discordance.
An idea struck Kavita.
“Let’s get down there quick,” she said, reaching over to grasp Vali’s arm. “Slap the copyright symbol in front of their name before some Artist has the mural taken down.”
Vali’s eyes twinkled, but then they dimmed. “City ordinance—“
“Says that if Art is claimed by an Artist, then it cannot be taken down without a majority vote of the voting citizens in that city, or township, et cetera.” Kavita had learned a lot of peripheral—apparently useful—information on her research endeavor. “As soon as we put that copyright notice up, the mural becomes Art. And because Pado claims the Art, Pado becomes an Artist, license or no license.”
“Are you sure that’s how that works? Sounds good, but who would uphold that claim?”
“We, the people, we are the ones who can uphold that claim.”
“Doesn’t this throw off your whole plan of slow and strategic release?”
“Always be ready to change the plan, especially if a potentially better one comes along. Let’s give the journalists something they could be proud to talk about, and the news anchors too, if they’re around. Spread the word wide and quick.”
“Okay, but city paint crews are quick too. What are we going to do while the public learns all about copyright? Stand guard in shifts to make sure no one paints over the mural?”
Kavi shrugged. “Comeback concert?”
Vali shook her head. “More like ‘last time you’ll see us in public’ concert.”
Kavi held up her slate. “I’m already calling in the others.”
Vali reached over and swiped the slate, retracting the summons. “I should go alone. There’s no need for you all to go down with me. I know you would. Knowing is enough. It’s enough.”
Kavita nodded. “It’s worth the risk. If a bunch of neighborhood kids can speak up for you, why should your bandmates, your friends, do any less?” She resent the messages to their bandmates. “The world needs Discordance.”
Valini shook her head and sighed heavily. “It would have been nice if I still had my drums, if I could get out there and play in front of the mural. My big showboat moment.”
“Well…how many pots and pans do you have?”
Vali’s eyes widened.
Kavi laughed. “Kidding.” She held up the slate. “Your sentence only prevents you from owning or purchasing musical equipment. Guess who bought all your gear at the auction?”
Somehow, Vali’s eyes grew even wider.
“You’re going to have to blink at some point.”
Vali blinked. She blinked a lot and quickly. At her side, her fingers curled, as if they were grasping drumsticks.
Copyright © 2020 Nila L. Patel