When you’re over 40, a 26 year old seems so young. It was hard to take him seriously when he said, “That sounds awesome! I’d really like to help!” I’d been babbling on to him for more than 45 minutes now. An endless disjointed series of thoughts about copyright, the war, peer-to-peer applications, new business models, and destroying the status quo. All because he had the audacity to query socially, “What have you been up to?”
“Help?” I thought, more than a bit condescendingly, “How on earth could he help?” I’d been working on some of the most intricate ideas of my life. Recursive bits of coding theory that most folks without a computer science degree couldn’t… Well… Hum?… Let’s just say that maybe… just maybe… I was a little too impressed with my own technical prowess. And let’s also say that Clay, well, he wasn’t a tech guy at all…
What Clay was, in fact, was my retirement planner. Or actually, my soon to be ex-retirement planner. That was why he was on the phone.
“I’m selling my share of the partnership. I want to do something different,” he told me.
“What do you want to do?” I asked only politely.
“Well, that was what I was wondering,” he replied. “At least until now…”
Clay has a sort of infectious enthusiasm that’s impossible to turn down. We’d actually only met face-to-face once before. I’d stumbled into an investment seminar during a torrential rain, and as fate would have it, I was the only one in the audience. Clay’s senior partner got five minutes into his formal presentation when Clay had the presence of mind to just stand up and say, “Hi, I’m Clay! This seems a little silly. Perhaps the three of us should just sit down and talk.” Clay makes personably cutting through the crap an art form.
“You know I’m a classically trained musician, right?” Of course I had no idea. “Yep, Berklee College of Music in Boston, years on the road, the whole nine yards. I only started in investments once I realized it was nearly impossible to make a decent living playing guitar. I not that fond of the music industry, and I really like your P2P system’s way of screwing with them. It’s fucking awesome!”
“But, beyond that,” he flattered me, “Your business ideas are truly mind blowing. They could change everything. Make it possible for musicians like me to make a living. That is kick ass! I really want to do this thing!… Oh, and we are going to get really fucking rich! ”
See, infectious! I told you! He even had me getting excited. An hour before they’d just been a collection of nebulous business ideas floating through my head. I was completely confident I hadn’t the resources nor the experience to pull them off. Besides all my free time was already filled with TBH and OFF…
“Have you tried talking to a lawyer?” he asked, interrupting my excitement.
“About OFF and maybe some patents,” he replied in his amazingly personable, yet subtle variant of *Duh!* “Be nice to find out if it is really as legally defensible as you think. Not to mention that I think you really should protect your business ideas.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa…” I tried to bring him back down to earth. My concepts were nowhere near concrete or coherent enough to patent yet. And The OFF System, well, I was doing my damnedest to stay away from lawyers! “Maybe we should start slow…” I cautioned.
“Look, I have a friend who works in a law office downtown. She’s a legal assistant but I bet she could hook us up with a lawyer. I’m sure she could get us at least an initial consultation for free. Wouldn’t it be worth it just to know?”
Like I said, impossible to turn down. I wasn’t the least bit convinced, but it seemed harmless enough to humor him.
“Sure, if you can find a lawyer who will talk to us, for free, then I’m happy to go.”
I figured there were enough caveats (legal assistant, wild-assed claims, free lawyer) that nothing would ever come of the plan. But what the hell, Clay’s a nice guy and I could learn a trick or two about persistence from him. 🙂
“We’re on for Monday,” were the first words to come out of the phone. “Get ready!”
It had been barely a week since Clay and I spoke, but I had nearly forgotten his quest.
“She got us an appointment with Charles at eleven. Says he’s a full partner.”
“Well crap. I guess I’d better figure out what questions I want answered then.” I said it jokingly, but I really wasn’t joking. I had no real clue why I was going through with this. Everything seemed way too premature. I’m the type of engineer who likes a full set of blueprints before I get started. We hadn’t even drawn a preliminary sketch.
“Don’t worry! What’s the worst that could happen?” Clay assured me. “So he gets bored and sends us away. Who cares?”
Damn I miss the invincibility of being in my twenties! But I had to admit he was right. Even if it was me and a guitar player walking in to talk to a random law office with a plan to subvert the entire media industry, it wasn’t like anyone else would notice. He probably wouldn’t even take us seriously. After all, what lawyer could understand half the technology or even a third of the ramifications?
“Tell me his name again and what’s the law firm?”
“The firm is Porter & Hedges. The guy we are going to meet is named Charles, Charles Baker.”
Through the phone, Clay couldn’t actually hear my head exploding. All he heard was,
“Holy shit Clay! What the fuck? He represents StreamCast!!!”
I was still clicking links and trying to understand the magnitude of this discovery when I heard his inevitable question.
“Is that good or bad?”
“Ah… um… bah…” I babbled struggling to clear my head. “StreamCast makes Morpheus… da… um… the… file sharing program…” Slowly I found my way back to my senses. “As in Grokster/Morpheus… I don’t know if you’ve… well.. it was pretty much the copyright case of the decade! Baker represented StreamCast… before the fucking Supreme Court! …last year!”
“So it’s good then! Awesome!”
Clay’s answer came before the limited bits left of my mind had settled on their own consensus. They didn’t seem to be converging to “awesome!” They kept coming back to “holy fuck!” But for as fast as my heart was beating it might as well have been “oh god we’re all gonna die!”
Still Clay wasn’t the least bit intimidated or dazzled. Only a little disappointed that we had to wait three whole days for the meeting.
“We’ve got to start someplace.” I could hear the smile in Clay’s voice. “Might as well start at the top!”
I teased Clay as we stepped into the elevator. Yes indeed, it was the “top” floor! The door opened five or six times on the way up. Each time revealing the standard ugly elevator lobbies or drab hallways. It was comforting somehow. Just everyday people doing their everyday jobs.
34, ding, 35, ding, 36, ding. Even Clay’s eyes bugged out as the door slid open.
There we stood in the center of a palatial legal suite that made the set of “LA Law” look like “Night Court”. Uninterrupted two story glass presided over Houston the way Mount Olympus presided over ancient Greece. We stood motionless gaping alternately between the pure blue heavens above and the three goddesses staring intently back at us from behind the elegant marble reception counter.
Our bottoms had barely touched leather before Aphrodite herself handed us drinks. I secretly hoped Charles would keep us waiting so I’d have time to settle my nerves. This place was mind blowing and way out of our league. Ten minutes I figured. He’ll give us ten minutes then escort us out so he can take an early lunch.
But no, it wasn’t two sips before Zeus strolled over and introduced himself as Charles Baker. He escorted Clay and I into a giant glass conference room that overlooked both the office and the city. Even now I’m lost in the surrealism of the moment. The guitar player and the geek at the end of a table for thirty, being treated as captains of industry.
“So, tell me what you’ve been working on.” Charles opened.
I remember Clay cracking a knowing smile, thinking back on a week ago. After that, everything is a blur.
I blathered on about the death of copyright. Future business models being required to compete with free. One copy being enough for everyone. And how multi-use encoding solved the problem of where to keep that one copy. Explained anonymous access and even demonstrated a little OFF System shock and awe.
I talked the first ten minutes without taking a breath, yet Charles didn’t usher us out. On the contrary, he at least pretended to hang on every word. Occasionally he’d interject or ask me questions, but mostly he sat listening patiently. Ironically, I passed the thirty minute mark explaining the value of attention. Then blew a quarter hour expanding the theory toward optimizing radio and television. I was well into the lunch hour before I finished pontificating on preserving the first-sale doctrine through pure digital property ownership.
All of that just so Charles would have enough background so I could probe him for legal holes in my theories. He was unbelievably gracious! For another half hour he confirmed most of my postulations and cautioned me about some of the dangers. And once I had no more questions to ask, more than an hour and a half into our “free consultation,” Charles asked the most curious thing…
“So what can I do to help you?”
It was the one question I was entirely unprepared for. I went from eloquent orator, to jabbering moron.
“Ba… hum… We’ll I’m not sure? Ah… Actually I have no idea. We obviously can’t afford you. We’re just getting started and haven’t even begun drumming up funds…”
“Don’t worry,” he interrupted me smiling! “We can afford to help an interesting startup from time to time. Just give me an idea of what you need now. Hopefully,” he joked, “you’ll come back later after you’ve found your funding!”
Still, I had no idea. I’d been preoccupied with seeming worthy enough to come here. I hadn’t even considered what came next. “Um…” I started again…
“Well, since you asked,” I heard interrupting out of nowhere, “One thing you could do is introduce us to some of your other peer-to-peer clients. We could use a few good contacts.”
Way to save the day Clay Price! “Yes,” I repeated, “That would be awesome.”
“Sure, I can to that,” Charles said without missing a beat. “Hum, but it’s a shame you won’t be in DC on Thursday. Most of my clients will be there for a conference. I’ve got a few meetings scheduled.”
“Damn,” I lamented…
“We’ll be there!” Clay exclaimed before I could get any more depressed words out of my mouth.
…WTF? What was Clay thinking? Last minute airfare will be crazy and we don’t even know how much the conference is! I’ll have to take off work…
“Just tell us the name of the conference,” Clay said, “We’ll get there. That will be so awesome! You’re the man, Charles!”
“We *have* to go!” Clay said in the elevator on the way down. “It’s Morpheus. It’s eDonkey. It’s LimeWire. Do you want to go through the rest of your life thinking, why the hell didn’t I go meet those guys? Who cares what it cost. Think of the stories you can tell!”
“So how was it?” I remember Janet asking about the meeting. It was the same question Dad had asked… Yet another roller coaster ride. Except this time, instead of stopping the train had just rolled through the station and back to the big hill. “Clunk, uh, clink, clink, clink, clink, clink, clink, clink, clink…” The sound of the chain was the only thing left going through my head.