The Freelancer - Cover

The Freelancer

by Robert Zacks

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Copyright law is taken to extreme in a despotic future

Tags: Science Fiction   Futuristic   Dystopian   Pulp Classic  

Once these laws were passed, any time in history—however bad—were the good old days!

Jeb was shaken from his bed; his dream told him it was a glacier with wild winds howling laughter, and when he opened his eyes, shivering, he saw his wife, Laurie, had pulled the heat switch off. She stood there glaring. Today her hair was a lovely purple with a fashionable streak of gold starting from the forehead, but it didn’t help the cold look on her face.

“Get up, you bum,” she said in her sweet contralto. “Go out and earn some credits or I’ll certify you.”

The thought of being transferred by the Economy Agent to Assigned Duty Status, with its virtual imprisonment to monotony by the Welfare Office, made Jeb tumble from bed and fumble for his shoes.

“My darling,” he said placatingly, “how beautiful you are this morning! How undeserving I am of you!”

“You’re damn right about that,” said Laurie with bitterness. “When I think of the men I could have married, the wonderful life I might have lived, instead of scrimping along with a no-good freelance Monitor like you...”

Sometimes I do pretty well. Three years ago, I sent you to the Pleasure Palace for a month, remember?”

“Three years ago. Big deal.”

She flounced out of the room. Sadly, Jeb went to the closet and examined the various uniforms and disguises that were part of his equipment as a freelance Monitor. As he selected the silver and black skintight suit of an Air Pollution Inspector, he wistfully remembered how nice it had been when Laurie had smiled at him. Immediately a flood of determination filled him to go out and do big things today. Maybe he would make a big strike and get a nice fat commission; then Laurie would...

The televisor buzzed, flickered, and the genial face of the man from Marriage Relations appeared.

“Good morning, Monitor Jeb,” said the man, smiling. “And how are things ‘twixt you and your beloved?”

“Rough,” moaned Jeb. “She’s really in a foul mood today.”

The man from Marriage Relations beamed. “Fine, fine, glad to hear it.”

“Huh?” said Jeb.

“Her Sadism Index Rating went up five points,” the man explained. “We wanted to make sure we hadn’t made an error. Well, that certainly is good news for you two. I’ll guess you’ll both be all right now.”

“All right? Are you kidding?”

“Now, now, we know what’s best for you. Your Masochism Rating is quite high, you know. Laurie is just what you need. Why, you two were made for each other.”

Suddenly the man stopped talking, gasped, and the screen flickered and went dead. Jeb’s astonishment was wiped away by the soft, silvery bell tone of his portable Monitex, a flat two-by-six-inch machine resting on a shelf nearby. As Jeb wildly lunged toward it, he saw it was glowing red, activated by a violation, and as he snatched it up, the coded reading dial had a notification: Bx-P-203.

Trembling, Jeb pressed a button on the lower left of the Monitex and a voice promptly droned mechanically from the waferlike loudspeaker hidden under the surface, giving details of the violation.

“Bx-P-203—At ten minutes after eight A.M., Monitex 27965 of Freelance Monitor Jeb picked up violation of Copyright on the phrase ‘were made for each other.’ Said phrase property of Joint Owners registered under Copyright of Verbal Phrases Act of 1996. Owners, Magnum Motion Picture Studios and Universal Publications. Fee for use 80 credits, commission fifty per cent.”

The voice went dead and the flat metal surface glowed with letters strung into words reading “Please Collect and Remit Total Fee.”

As Jeb uttered a yelp of delight, Laurie came running into the room.

“I heard the Monitex bell,” she said eagerly.

“You sure did,” crowed Jeb. “Now aren’t you proud of me? I was smart enough to leave the Monitex on all night. We picked up a Verbal Copyright violation...”

“You left it on all night?” screeched Laurie, her joy fading. “You imbecile, the leasing charge on the Monitex is ten credits an hour, isn’t it? What’s your commission on this violation?”

“Forty credits. I—I guess I’m losing money, b-but...”

Laurie gave him her opinion of his supposed shrewdness.

Jeb unhappily went to the televisor and punched out a call on the button keyboard which would recall the image of the Marriage Relations representative. He shrank back in alarm as the man’s glaring face appeared.

“Sorry to hook you this way, old boy,” said Jeb meekly, “but it’s my job, you know. Got you on a Verbal for using ‘were made for each other.’ That phrase is owned by—”

“You dirty, sneaking spy!” yelled the man on the televisor screen. “I’ll bet your grandfather informed on diamond smugglers for a percentage.”

“He...” Jeb feebly started to protest.

“It’s a hell of a thing,” raved the other, “when a man can’t even use words to express himself without paying...”

In alarm, Jeb leaned forward and hastily punched a combination of buttons on the televisor. One half the screen blanked. The image of the Marriage Relations representative moved to the right and the lean, puritanical face of Jeb’s supervisor, Dirdon, flared onto the left half.

Dirdon looked icily at Jeb. “What is it?”

“Complaint on policy and purpose of Copyright Law,” said Jeb nervously. “Would you please handle it, sir? I’ll switch you.”

As Dirdon’s mouth pressed into a thin line and he nodded, Jeb flicked a switch. Both men on the screen immediately turned profiles to Jeb and Laurie, seeing each other in their own screens.

“Did you have a complaint, sir?” asked Dirdon.

“I don’t know who the devil you are,” shouted the man from Marriage Relations, “but I assume you’re one of those pirates cashing in on that copyright swindle. That new law has gone much too far. Copyrighting a work of skill, art, or expression is okay, I suppose, but to extend it to everyday speech, to verbal phrases—”

“Now just a minute,” said Dirdon briskly. “You buy greeting cards, I suppose, sir?”

“So I buy greeting cards, so what?”

“What are greeting cards exactly? Just a small square of paper with a few words, a very few words of sentiment on them. Words that any normal person certainly might be able to—”

“Any moron can write a better sentiment than those lousy cards express.”

“But you buy them sometimes?”

“Well ... sometimes.”

“Why?” demanded Dirdon.

“Saves me the bother of figuring out what to say, I guess,” was the growled answer.

“Right. And you paid for these very few moronic phrases, paid good hard credits for them. Now isn’t it just as logical to protect owners of a phrase when somebody else uses it verbally?”

“But,” said the man desperately, “I didn’t want to violate the Copyright on Verbal Use. I didn’t know that phrase was under Copyright. Who can keep track of them all? Every day, more phrases and expressions are under Copyright as somebody else’s property. Why, first thing you know, there’ll hardly be any words left to say.”

“That isn’t true,” objected Dirdon. “Copyright Law on Verbal Use is a great boon to society. Rule 7 for admission to protection requires that the phrase covered be one which may be considered ‘shopworn, overused and so artistically traditional that it is a wearisome truism.’ That means that verbal mediocrity is heavily penalized, which is right and proper. Why, you ought to be ashamed to use a phrase like ‘were made for each other.’ It’s Monitors like Jeb who make you watch your words and think very carefully before you speak.”

“Listen, stupid—”

“Already,” Dirdon plowed on, happily oratorical, “our citizens are being forced to express themselves more richly, with initiative, casting off triteness!”

The man from Marriage Relations looked disgusted. “Ah,” he said angrily, “why don’t you drop dead.”


The man moaned as the Monitex Jeb held glowed red with another violation. Jeb grinned and pressed the loudspeaker button.

“Mz-R-14,” droned the voice. “At half-past eight, Monitex 27965 of Freelance Monitor Jeb picked a violation of...”

The man covered his ears. After a few moments, he took his hands away and looked numbly from the screen as Dirdon smirked.

“What’s the Copyright fee on that one?” he asked.

“The use of the words ‘Drop Dead’ will cost you ten credits,” said Jeb. “We’ll bill you for both violations.”

Dirdon was beaming as Jeb snapped the whole screen dark.

With a start, Jeb remembered Laurie and turned to face her anger. “See, honeybunch?” he said hopefully. “Even if I did lose a few credits on the leasing charge by leaving the Monitex on all night, it looks like a lucky day. Why, I’ll bet I make enough commissions today to send you on a nice vacation.”

Laurie gave him a narrow-eyed, cold stare.

“You’d better,” she said. “Because I’ve just about had enough of you. Either you make a big killing today or I certify you by midnight tonight. Do you hear me?”

Jeb nodded in fright. He scuttled out of the room, picking up a gravity harness from the stand in the foyer and not pausing to buckle himself into it until she slammed the door behind him.

Sighing, Jeb got into the harness and took off. He floated out the opening at the end of the corridor at the sixty-story level and joined the stream of commuters at two thousand feet.

As he set his speed at thirty miles an hour, he came abreast of a man wearing the solid gray uniform of an Unassigned Citizen. Jeb saw the look of misery on the man’s drawn face and felt so sympathetic, he didn’t even bother to hide his Monitex in its disguising parcel. You had to be pretty low to make your money out of a guy in that tough status. Hell, thought Jeb defiantly, let him see it and be warned; I don’t care. Even if the Inspector sees me.

He noted the Unassigned Citizen staring down at the panorama of the vast city beneath them. At different lower levels, myriad flights of streaming citizens moved in various directions. The tremendous blocks of buildings had thin slits between them at the bottom of which were walks filled with antlike figures.

“Ugly, huh?” said Jeb.

He got a moody stare in return. “Believe it or not, I suddenly find it beautiful. Compared to where I’m heading, anyway.”

Jeb was shocked. “Oh?”

“I’ve been certified,” said the man bluntly. “Not enough credits for support. I had to go to the Welfare Office and ask for assistance. Had my own gravity harness repair shop till a month ago. But the new ones are foolproof, business fell off. Now I’m in for it.”

“Gosh,” muttered Jeb, “that’s really tough. But what do you mean, ‘compared to where you’re heading?’ Sure, you’ll be assigned a dirty underground job, on the cables maybe, and the pay will be ridiculous, but it’ll be right here, won’t it?”

“Haven’t you heard?” The other smiled grimly. “So many of us small business guys are being certified, the Welfare people had no more jobs. And you know the law. Indigents must be assigned to some duty. And it just happens that they’re opening new mines on Mars and they can’t get help. I’ve no choice.”

“Mines?” Jeb paled at the thought. “That Melbonite dust. One speck through the sealed-in suit and you’ve got a burn they still can’t heal.” He shuddered; then, seeing the face of the Unassigned Citizen, he said soothingly, “But those suits are foolproof, I understand.”

“Not always,” said the man in gray. “Anyway, they haven’t licked the ventilation problem. The last suits they tried to air-condition, so much Melbonite dust filtered in...” He took a deep breath of horror. “So the ones in use become awfully sweaty. I’m going to a living hell...”


Jeb’s Monitex glowed red with a violation. “Living Hell” was an old-fashioned dramatic phrase somebody sharp had dug up after diligent study and copyrighted in the hope of picking up a few credits.

As Jeb numbly listened to the droning voice detail the facts and four credits charge, the man in the gray suit said mirthlessly, “Well, well, that’s just fine. Thanks a lot, my friend, for a nice sendoff.”

Jeb snapped off the Monitex. “Look,” he said hurriedly, “that was an accident. This one is on me. Here.” He took four credit tokens from a pocket and thrust the silvery rectangles at the Unassigned Citizen. “Put these aside until you’re billed for the violation and pay it with my credits. Okay?”

“Thanks,” said the man gratefully. “I’ll remember you.”

Men flying with jet packs

Jeb gave him a twisted grin. “You may not have to, pal. I may be right beside you in the next shipment. My wife is ready to certify me for non-support. If I don’t clean up a nice fat commission by tonight, blooey, it’s the mines for me, too.”

The Unassigned Citizen started to form the words Good luck! when Jeb hastily interrupted, “That’s on Copyright. Take it easy.”

“Uh ... my heart goes beside yours,” said the man, choosing his words carefully. “My sympathy has arms, one of which is around your mighty shoulders. I say to you farewell.”

“Wonderful!” exclaimed Jeb. He pumped the other’s hand. “I like the way you put that. It’s new. It has a freshness.”

They smiled at each other. Then the oval building that housed The SuperMonitex Feeder came into view and Jeb waved good-by and swung out of the commuter stream in the regulation spiral under the cold eyes of a golden-clad traffic cop. Jeb landed on the balcony ledge outside the ninetieth-level corridor and walked in, finally entering a huge room in the center of which was a circular wall with plug outlets and sets of dials and screens at intervals all the way around.

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