Written by Matthew Harrison
Robbie only had himself to blame when the policeman stopped him and said they would like to ask a few questions. He had been walking along minding his own business – and you just couldn’t do that, at least not in such a normal kind of way. His brother Mark had said so, and Mark was a lawyer. It was all right for him, Robbie thought bitterly – lawyers ruled.
Nonetheless, as the sergeant led him deep into the police station, Robbie began to wish he was a lawyer himself, or at least had a different lawyer to help him. He couldn’t face Mark.
Conditioned by soap operas, he was expecting to be put behind bars. It was therefore a surprise to find himself brought to an ordinary, if rather, airless office. The sergeant introduced him curtly to his counsellor, the middle-aged lady behind the desk, and went out shutting the door with a bang. It was easy to see who the sergeant subscribed to, Robbie thought, but he shook the lady’s limp hand and sat down.
The counsellor gave Robbie a weary smile, and read him his rights. Then came the charge. “I’m afraid, love, you’re a breach of copyright.”
Robbie pretended to be flabbergasted. “Wh–what do you mean?”
“Oh, don’t worry, we’re not going to terminate you!” The counsellor laughed, shaking her greying curls. “By the way, I’m Anne. My job is to help you through this. You’ll be perfectly all right but you just can’t carry on as you are.”
“Can’t carry on?” Robbie repeated as blankly as he could. He was actually rather good at imitations, but this wasn’t the time.
“No, dear.” Anne straightened in her seat, and put on her glasses, looking at him sharply through the heavily-corrected lenses. “The best thing is for you to accept it. Everyone else does. Look at me!” She spread her arms. “I’m a fully paid licence-holder – glasses,” she tapped them, “toe–own of voice,” with exaggerated inflection, “even my hairstyle. The fees are small, and it’s peace of mind. That’s what I always tell my clients.”
Robbie began to bluster, although he knew he was on shaky ground.
Anne had seen it all before. “It’s perfectly normal that you should feel like that, Robbie, but the sooner you get through it the better.” She glanced at her watch. “I don’t mean to rush, but I have another appointment.”
Robbie tried again. “I was just being myself. What’s wrong with that?”
Anne frowned, and turned the screen on her desk so that he could see it. “It’s your choice of self, dear. Let’s just go through your profile again. Yes, here we are.” Images of Robbie rolled down the screen. “Tertiary education, middling grades, no relationship, office job. Likes: beer, heavy metal, football.” She looked up. “Are you getting the picture?”
Robbie squirmed. “What’s wrong with football?”
“Nothing, if you’re playing. There are lots of different ways you can express your individuality, but watching? Think of the millions of other young men doing just that, and drinking beer at the same time, almost all of them.” She looked at him pityingly. “Tell me, have you ever done an original thing in your life?”
In the stuffy office Robbie found it difficult to think. “Wait! I collected things!” he recalled. “When I was small, I collected cards.”
“What sort of cards?”
“Er, footballers,” Robbie said lamely. “It was the World Cup, we were collecting the teams.” His voice trailed off.
Anne pursed her lips. “Well, that’s something, but it’s not enough. It’s just ‘fair use’ of the original persona. Anything else?”
Robbie hung his head.
He must have looked very down, because Anne said “There, there,” and actually reached across to squeeze his hand in a motherly sort of way. “If it’s any comfort, all my clients feel like that. Twenty years ago, you could have watched football to your heart’s content, but now the type has been copyrighted, and that’s that.”
Robbie nodded. He had been foolish to think he could get away with it, especially the football-watching. They had so many ways to track you. “What should I do now?” he asked glumly. “Pay the fee?”
Anne looked disapproving. “You can try, but would they want you?”
“Want me?” Robbie repeated.
“Yes, dear, it is their persona after all. Would they want you representing them? Especially after you’ve been passing yourself off all these years. You have to be realistic.”
Phew! Robbie hadn’t thought of that. Mark’s advice came to his mind with a sickening jolt. Robbie was almost ready to throw himself on his counsellor’s mercy, but then, somewhere within, he found a rock of stubbornness. “I’ve got connections,” he said slowly.
“Very well, dear, good luck with those,” Anne said coldly. She arranged a grant of bail in the amount of one pound.
Feeling that even the amount was demeaning, Robbie paid up and stumped out.
When he got home, Robbie’s confidence ebbed further. That suffocating all-powerful office, backed by the force of law, how could he fight that?
Mark was the obvious port of call, but Robbie couldn’t face the, ‘I told you so’. Instead, he called Samantha. Sam was Mark’s girlfriend, but she had a big-sisterly soft spot for Robbie. When he poured it out to her over the phone, she was truly sympathetic.
“That’s really hard, Robbie, really unfair. You haven’t done anything, and what about all the other young men who watch football. They never get prosecuted. Well, I suppose there was Jake, and then, who was that? Ked or Kit? I can’t remember, but what’s wrong with watching football anyway? I watch football on the telly with Mark, and no one’s complained about me!” Sam laughed.
“Perhaps it’s different for women,” Robbie said glumly.
“I’m sure you’re right,” Sam agreed. “That’s so like you, Robbie. You’re such a sweetie, so understanding. You know, when you do your deep-voice imitation of that celebrity, J., it just tickles me. I can’t stop laughing! You should try it with your counsellor. It might soften up the old bitch.” Sam turned away from the phone. “Yes, I’m coming, don’t shout, dear.”
“Gotta go,” Sam concluded in a rush, “but why don’t you try Bill? Love for now.” She clicked off the phone.
Bill, Robbie’s college friend, was a para-something in a law firm in the high street. He did conveyancing, which sounded technical, but he would surely be able to help.
When Robbie called, Bill was busy on another line, but eventually he rang back.
Robbie explained that he was having a little trouble over copyright. What did Bill advise?
There was a non-committal grunt over the line.
“I mean, can I get out of it, pretend to be someone else?” Robbie asked.
Bill mumbled something. Then, he said more clearly, “It sounds as though they’ve already got you, too late to pretend. Not that you aren’t pretty good with your J. thing.”
“Well, what can I do?”
Bill paused. “I’m not really familiar with this, but I can check, we’ve had quite a few cases recently. Hey! Why don’t you just do something different and break the mould? Then, they couldn’t hang the charge on you.”
Robbie thought about it. “How different would it have to be?”
“Killing your counsellor would swing it!” A chortle over the phone. Then, “Look, Robbie, I’ve got a client calling. Talk later!” And he rang off.
The following week, Robbie was back in his counsellor’s office. He had tried other friends, but no one seemed to know what to do, and lawyers ruled anyway. So, here he was, facing this middle-aged lady who held, if not, his life, his freedom in her hands.
“What do you advise me to do?” he asked humbly.
“Now that’s a more positive attitude!” Anne beamed. “I knew you would come round. Well, we do have arrangements for sensible clients like you.” She folded her arms, and looked at him over the top of her glasses. “How do you feel about the Isle of Wight?”
“Think of it as an extended holiday,” Annie continued. She took a roll of paper from her desk and unrolled it, to reveal a map of the island. “They have all kinds of activities, and you’re allowed out at weekends. Of course, you have to wear a tag, but we’re all under surveillance nowadays.” She glanced up at the camera that was indeed monitoring them from a corner of the ceiling. “And it’s a mixed facility. You might even meet someone!”
She pushed an electronic pad across the desk. “You just have to confess to your crime. You can sign right here, and I’m sure the magistrate will take a lenient view. Then, when you’ve served your time, we’ll get you properly licensed. There’s no shame in it. We can’t all be unique anyway. Society would fall apart.” She laughed. “Then, you can watch football to your heart’s content!”
Robbie picked up the stylus, and looked at the pad. It began, “I, Robert Dwight Sturgeon admit and acknowledge –” What a silly name he had, he thought sadly. With his mates, he would often make fun of his own name, creating a little persona around Sturgeon the Surgeon doing operations with a fish slice that had his friends in fits.
Creating a persona. An idea came. Robbie put down the stylus.
“I think there’s been a mistake,” he said slowly. “I’m not really this Robert.”
Anne glared at him. “Nonsense! We have the biometric scans.”
Robbie raised a hand. “Of course I’m physically him, but the persona, I just made it up.”
With Anne as his startled audience, he Robbie slipped on his baseball cap (which he always had with him), and launched into the J. imitation of his life.
After his discharge, Robbie called his friends, and met them at the pub. They gathered eagerly round, and he basked in the attention.
“I knew you’d manage it!” said Sam. “I knew you were smart, Robbie. Gissa hug!” Robbie obliged. “Mark, isn’t he just super?”
His elder brother gruffly agreed.
Bill wanted to know whether he was really released, or just on bail.
“Get away!” said Sam. “Our Rob? He’s as free as a bird, aren’t you, dear?”
“But how did you do it?” she continued. “We’d all like to know. Did you have to give up watching football?”
A Premiership match was playing on the screen overhead. Robbie shook his head.
“Or pay a penalty?” she continued asking.
They all looked at him expectantly. What was it?
For an answer, Robbie slipped on his baseball cap, crouched low, fingers splayed, and – to cries from his friends of, “Yo! J.! J.!” – began to sing in a startlingly deep voice,
“Ah told ’em ’bout ma creation
And how Ah’m gettin‘ ’frustration
Cos ma Robbie’s from ma station
And that persona’s no relation–“
“My goodness!” Mark whistled as the applause died down. “Independent creation of the infringing work. Well done!”
Matthew Harrison lives in Hong Kong, and perhaps because of that he is reliving a boyhood passion for science fiction. He has published numerous SF short stories and is building up to longer pieces as he learns more about the universe. Matthew is married with two children but no pets as there is no space for these in Hong Kong.