A Copyfight Case Study
I’ve always been interested in copyright law and the bizarre ways it asserts itself today, in this post-modern era where very little can be truly original; every piece of art references in some fashion some art that came before it. I came across something very recently that reminded me of my all-time favorite copyfight – Negativland vs. U2.
Now chances are, you’ve heard of one of these artists and not the other. The latter is the super gigantic pop band that is so huge they have their own iPod. The former is a small, politically-active music collective who mashup different found sound and samples to create witty, sarcastic music that is highly referntial to pop culture. Perhaps their finest work is a series of songs that take the tune of U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (which sounds like it’s being played on some sort of digital kazoo) and outtakes from insipid radio personality Casey Kasem having various foul-mouthed temper tantrums while recording his top 40 radio show. Kasem’s unedited outbursts are hilarious on their own, but when Negativland takes to cutting and pasting some of the audio clips, it gets even funnier.
The irony is that U2’s lead singer Bono is renowned for his humanitarian work and his sense of equality. I would suspect he would agree with many of the world’s current open access pushes, including free access to scholarly research around the world and developing countries’ access to live-saving drugs. (I don’t mean to put words in Bono’s ruggedly-unshaven mouth, but it stands to reason that he’d be into such goals). But when Negativland used U2’s song as the background for their mashup (and more importantly in this case, parts of their album art) in their release, U2’s lawyers went after the small art collective like a pack of junkyard dogs.
This kind of thing happens all the time. There is even an online collection of cease-and-desist letters from similar situations. Usually the artist on the receiving end of that letter both ceases and desists, because they have not the money to fight Goalith. Negativland, however, with a little help of their friends, managed to confront U2’s guitarist The Edge on the matter. U2’s management offered a tech magazine a rare interview with The Edge to discuss their technologically impressive stage show. Little did he know he was about to be ambushed. A sampling (M&D are Negativland, E is The Edge):
M: I wanted to ask you something more about the Zoo TV tour. One thing that wasn't really clear to me- you have a satellite dish so that you can take stuff down live off of various TV transmissions around the world?
E: Yeah, essentially the system is, like we've got the big screens on the stage which are the final image that's created. Down by the mixing board we've got a vision mixer which mixes in, blends the images from live cameras, from optical disks, and from live satellite transmissions that are taken in from a dish outside the venue. So the combination of images can be any of those sources. We've also incorporated telecommunications. We've got a telephone onstage that Bono occasionally makes calls from the stage and occasionally calling the White House or ordering pizza or whatever...um, phone sex...
Don: So you can kind of sample whatever's out there on the airwaves...
E: Yeah, it's kind of like information central.
M: One thing I'm curious about- there's been more and more controversy over copyright issues and sampling, and I thought that one thing you're doing in the Zoo TV tour is that you were taking these TV broadcasts- copyrighted material that you are then re-broadcasting right there in the venue where people paid for a ticket- and I wondered what you thought about that.
D: And whether you had any problem, whether it ever came up that that was illegal.
E: No, I mean, I asked the question early on- is this going to be a problem?, and apparently it, I don't think there is a problem. I mean, in theory I don't have a problem with sampling. I suppose when a sample becomes just part of another work then it's no problem. If sampling is, you know, stealing an idea and replaying the same idea, changing it very slightly, that's different. We're using the visual and images in a completely different context. If it's a live broadcast, it's like a few seconds at the most. I don't think, in spirit, there's any...
D: So you would say that a fragmentary approach is the way to go.
E: Yeah. You know, like in music terms, we've sampled things, people sample us all the time, you know, I hear the odd U2 drum loop in a dance record or whatever. You know, I don't have any problem with that.
D: Well, this is interesting, because we've been involved in a similar situation along these lines...
RUS: In fact, maybe it's time for me to interject here. The folks that you've been talking to, Don and Mark, aside from being occasional contributors to Mondo 2000, are members of a band called Negativland.
Read the rest here. It's a hoot.
How great it must have been to be able to call out The Edge. Although it was technically U2’s lawyers putting up their dukes, a band of their size and popularity can exert its will over the big, bad corporations (look at bands like Pearl Jam, who set up a different system by which to purchase tickets to take themselves out of the Ticketmaster system that was gouging their fans). Bands have a responsibility to stand up to record companies, or at least it's fun to watch someone squirm every now and then. (And yes, I still like U2.)
For more intellectual property fun with Negativland, read an interview from my old webzine with Mark Hosler here. (It's the cover story)