A chilling piece of science fiction projects the future of our most frightening tech-law trends: what will the mission-creep for memory erasure look like?

Stop the Music

By Charles Duan





The Washington Post

Supreme Court to Hear Case on Memory Erasure

February 12, 2046

This morning, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a closely
watched case over the ability of a songwriter to use his copyright power
to erase from the minds of all Americans a song deemed to infringe
that copyright.

The case, Whitman v. Vail Enterprises, pits songwriter Gene
Whitman against neuroscientist-turned-remix-artist Alfred Vail, over
the former hit song 'Straight Focus.' A jury in 2044 decided that Vail's
song infringed Whitman's copyright. Immediately afterwards, the
Recording Industry Association of America issued commands to the
Federal Digital Rights Management system, automatically deleting all
versions of the song from all online sites and personal computing
devices. 'Straight Focus' has not been heard in the United States for
over a year now.

But Whitman found the deletion of 'Straight Focus' from all
devices to be not enough. Intensely protective of his works, Whitman
sought a further order from the court for deletion of 'Straight Focus'
from all people's minds, using the National MemSweep system owned
by Vail.

The trial court refused Whitman's request, stating that it would not
order the use of National MemSweep without guidance from the
Supreme Court.

Whitman declined to comment on the case. Vail, in an interview,
expressed 'exasperation' that the case had even reached the Supreme

'My song 'Straight Focus' holds a lot of meaning to lots of people,'
he said. 'For me, it's a memory of my daughter, who I lost three years
ago. And fans of the song have created their own meanings and
memories from it. It boggles the mind why Gene Whitman can selfishly
wipe out all those thoughts with some sort of claim of copyright

This is the second recent case on the National MemSweep
system to reach the Supreme Court. The last case, United States
v. Neilson
, tested the constitutionality of the system as used to
suppress criminal activity in the wake of the August 7, 2039
terrorist attacks. A sharply divided 5-4 decision affirmed the

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Diehr rejected challenges
under the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments, finding National
MemSweep to be 'a necessary tool of a technological society to prevent
wrongdoing and malfeasance against the public.' An air force veteran
and former Department of Justice prosecutor, the chief justice likely
drew from her years of experience serving in the United States
military when she concluded that 'the ever-increasing threats
to this nation can only be met with ever-increasingly effective
defenses.' Furthermore, she wrote, 'the duties of citizenship must
at least include the surrender of personal thoughts if to do so
would protect the greater good, just as one may be called to
surrender liberty or property in times of war for the good of the

A strongly worded dissent by Justice Diamond dismissed
the idea that 'the human mind is the plaything of the federal
government.' Reflecting his background as a former civil rights lawyer,
the justice interpreted the Constitution and Bill of Rights to
include 'penumbras' of guarantees of privacy and freedom of
thought. These were strongly in conflict with non-consensual
memory erasure, in his view. He cited to the case Americans
for Digital Rights v. Gottschalk
, which held that collection of
online data was an illegal search under the Fourth Amendment.
Twenty-five years ago, Justice Diamond was the attorney for ADR in
that case, which finally struck down pre-Internet caselaw that
had been seriously questioned by Justice Sotomayor back in

Justice Flook, who wrote a separate concurrence, indicated that he
was 'on the fence' due to the 'troubling implications' of widespread
memory erasure, but on the whole found that the benefits outweighed
those issues. He will likely cast the swing vote in the case, and all eyes
will be on him during the argument.

The justice is a former law professor, whose interests and writings
focused on environmental and natural resources law. Reflecting his
academic prowess and his environmentalist passion, the justice's
opinion in Neilson, like many of his others, is both analytically brilliant
and emotionally torn. 'I sincerely fear,' he wrote, 'a world where my
memories and the memories of countless others can be erased at
the flip of a switch. But I fear attacks of terrorists no less. So
long as I can be satisfied that memory erasure is limited to the
most necessary of situations, my first fear will remain sufficiently

The argument will begin at 10:00 AM, and the case is Whitman
v. Alfred Vail Enterprises
, No. 45-405.




The Washington Post

High Court Authorizes Erasure of Song from National

June 25, 2046

In an acrimoniously split 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court approved
an order against technology and music giant Vail Enterprises, requiring
it to use the National MemSweep system to erase all memory of the hit
song 'Straight Focus' from the minds of all people in the United

Writing for the majority, Justice Flook reiterated his concerns
about cabining uses of National MemSweep to 'serious infractions of
the law,' but was persuaded that 'the strong copyright policies that
have developed over the last few decades indicate that the nation now
views copyright infringement as such a serious infraction.' He went on
to find that 'removal of memories is an appropriate remedy, given the
longstanding ability of copyright owners to remove ideas from just
about every other place, based on Section 1201 and other parts of the
copyright law.'

In dissent, Justice Diamond found the decision 'diametrically
opposed to the constitutional requirement that copyrights promote
progress of the arts and sciences,' and predicted that the decision
would lead to 'an era devoid of new music, new writings, and
new creations that depend on building upon the work of the

Music industry executives applauded the high court for approving of
memory deletion. 'Copyright should give creators total control over
their works and how audiences perceive them,' said Clifford King,
president of the Recording Industry Association of America.
'Eliminating bootleg content from people's minds ought to be a part of

But civil liberties advocates disagreed. 'A person's right to freedom
of thought ought to trump a commercial copyright interest,' read a
letter signed by twenty nonprofit organizations this morning, asking
Congress to overturn the decision.

The ruling will most directly affect the creator of 'Straight Focus'
itself, Alfred Vail, who will be compelled to conduct the erasure of
memories of his own song. Vail could not be reached for comment. His
neighbors reported that they had not seen him leave his home since the
ruling was announced.

This particular act of memory erasure for copyright infringement
will remain unique for some time, given that it could only occur in the
unusual circumstance of the copyright infringer being the same as the
owner of the National MemSweep system. But that may not be the
case for long. The patents on MemSweep are due to expire two years
from now.

'We are in the early stages of planning our own system, tentatively
called the 'Mental Rights Management' or MRM system,' said
Mr. King. 'This will allow every author, artist, and songwriter to reap
the benefits of memory erasure that the Supreme Court's decision

The activation of National MemSweep in view of this case will not
occur for several weeks, most likely not until late July. System
engineers will code in the parameters of the information to be erased,
so that no trace of memory — not even knowledge that a memory had
been erased — will remain.

As with other activations of the system, it will likely occur in the
late morning or early afternoon, to minimize disturbance. The
procedure will consist of about fifteen seconds of low-pitched, rhythmic
sounds — some have described them as lyrical or soothing — loud enough
to penetrate walls or buildings, and calibrated to remove all
memories of the song in question. After that time, the music will go


Message from Rand A. Warsaw to Alice Stevens Vail

April 4, 2084

Hi Mom,

(I'm trying out this new direct-mind transcription thing — sorry if
this is a little rambling, haven't quite gotten the mental focus down

I was going through Grandpa Al's things to get ready for the estate
sale next week (I can't believe how fast they do these things, the
funeral was just a week ago!) and of all things, there was this box stuck
behind a desk stored in the attic. At first it looked like it might have
fallen back there by accident — it must have been there for years, it
was so dusty — but I think Grandpa may have meant to hide

Inside there were a couple of legal documents and newspaper
clippings. Something about a lawsuit over a song that he wrote. I had
no idea that he was a musician once. But I guess that's not surprising,
considering that the documents say that they erased everyone's
memory of his song.

On top of the papers, there was this note:

June 26, 2046. Last Monday, the Supreme Court
approved obliterating my song 'Straight Focus' from
everyone's memory. My song! That I spent months
thinking about and planning, all because of a couple of
dumb notes borrowed from someone else.

I thought about leaving the country so at least I
could escape the MemSweep order, but the judge said
that I had to be present to carry out the order to
activate the system next month. Besides, the RIAA
guy said that it was only a matter of time before
their Memory Rights Management system went global
anyway, so it's not like I could really get away.

I really hoped that 'Straight Focus' would be my
lasting legacy. I remember explaining MemSweep to
Sarah when she was seven or eight, and she said
to me, 'Dad, maybe you should make something for
remembering, instead of something for forgetting.' And
after she lost her battle with cancer, I realized I did
want to make something for people to remember — and
something for me to remember her by.

'Straight Focus' did that. Everyone loved the song,
and there were all those great fan versions of it, and
videos and everything. I was sharing my new music
ideas with the whole world — creating something to be

Copyright is supposed to protect artists like me,
isn't it? And instead, copyright law is what's destroying
my creation. How could they not see something like this
coming? How could they have left that ridiculous 1201
law untouched for almost fifty years?

Well, life is full of ironies. The last thing I expected
was for my own memory erasing technology to be used
against my own ideas.

It's been losses all the way down ever since Sarah
died. She loved music, and there was nothing more
important to her than her favorite playlist. After I lost
her, I barely managed to hold onto that playlist before
they deleted it under the digital goods estate planning
law (bizarre that your next of kin can't inherit your
music library!). I made 'Straight Focus' to keep her
memory alive, but then they deleted that song, even on
my own computers.

And now they're deleting the very memory of that
song about her. It's like they're deleting her from my

So before my memories are taken from me next
month, I'm packing up what I have left of this
song — practically all my memories of Sarah, I guess. I
was going to leave the box on my desk so I'd see it after
they run MemSweep. But the thoughts I'm having now
are too sad, too painful, and I don't know if I want to
reopen those wounds right after I've lost my memories.
So I'm going to tuck this box back here in the attic.
Perhaps I will find it again one day, hopefully in happier

Also, there's this plastic cartridge, about the size of my hand, with
some sort of shiny brownish spool of tape running inside. The plastic
cartridge has 'Straight Focus' written on it. There's also a black
machine with some buttons, and it looks like the cartridge fits inside
the machine. I can't get them to turn on, though. I think they need
some power, and I tried every wireless induction charger I've got at
home, and none of them worked. Must be too old for them, I

I'll bring all the stuff I found when I come by tomorrow. Let's ask
Uncle James if he can figure it out, since he likes all that old
21st-century machinery. Who knows, maybe we'll discover a whole new
side of Alfred Vail that we'd never heard before.

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Charles Duan is an attorney at Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group that promotes the public interest in copyright and patent law.