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It's everywhere. The constant hum of car radios, movie trailers, Muzak, talking heads, diet-soda jingles--all vying for your attention. This is the noise taking up space inside your head. It's also what keeps Negativland awake at night. Pop music may be less distinguishable from the commercial media barrage than ever, but few outside this Berkeley-based music-and-art collective have made a career of sampling the culture in order to comment upon it. Since forming in 1979, the group discovered firsthand the attachment so many corporations have to the sounds they emit. Apparently, we're supposed to ingest all this information, and be manipulated by it, but we're specifically denied the right to manipulate it in return.
This may be why Negativland is better known as a legal case than a band. In 1992 they were sued by Island Records for an EP titled U2 (SST), which found them incorporating portions of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and recordings of Casey Kasem mouthing off about the song's original, Irish creators. (The whole episode was later chronicled in the book Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2.) Even after the EP was seized, Negativland continued to willfully disobey laws they felt were unjust and outdated, exploring the limits of Fair Use, that clause within copyright law providing exceptions for commentary or art. The group's most recent album, 1997's Dispepsi, used countless snippets from classic cola commercials. It amounted, like their entire body of work, to an extended act of civil disobedience.
For years Negativland member Don Joyce has hosted a weekly three-hour Berkeley radio show, Over the Edge, which mixes such media elements live. Speaking over the phone on the eve of his group's first tour in seven years, Joyce told City Pages that his band merely respects old artistic traditions that long predate copyright law.
CITY PAGES: You call yourselves "culture jammers." Where does that term come from?
DON JOYCE: It has come to mean getting inside the traditionally one-way media and manipulating it to your own purposes. We were originally fans of ham radio, and that's where "jamming" first came to us. It's a term from when guys would get on and interrupt other guys' signals and put in all kinds of tapes and whistling and obscenities over the air. These were "jammers" on the airwaves. We would record these and use them in various ways--they're often funny.
CP: After U2's lawsuit, I imagine you guys have been forced to become experts on the subject of copyright law...
JOYCE: Yeah, certainly for a while we were deeply involved in reading legal texts [laughs]. But it's horrible. I hate it. And I'm not a continuing scholar on the subject.
CP: Has all that changed your way of making music?
JOYCE: No, it didn't change it a bit, funnily enough. Ever since the beginning, every single record we put out is technically, from a copyright standpoint, just as illegal as any other one. We only got sued for one out of about 20 releases. Fact is, you can get away with [sampling] a whole lot of stuff as long as it's an out-of-print record or a little snippet of a radio broadcast. The thing we got sued for was a U2 record, and that's when you get in trouble--when you start sampling from the rich and famous.
CP: I noticed that your 1981 album Points actually bears the old copyright logo. Then, after the U2 suit, you stopped putting that on your records, replacing it with the symbol for no copyright, N©. What exactly does N© signify to you?
JOYCE: It's just a symbol of an idea that maybe copyright's not such a great thing. We aren't strictly against copyright; we don't want to see our Negativland records come back to us from China or someplace as exact bootleg copies, for which we get nothing. But collage is something else. Copyright law came along before all this sampling technology did. It doesn't account for these differences, that there may be an artistic approach here that involves using existing work.
Fair Use is the way around copyright. It excuses you from the regulations if your work is comment, criticism, parody. Fair Use is there, but it's rarely used, because the people who are sued usually can't afford to go to court and defend themselves on that basis. We would like to see copyright law adjusted to make a distinction between artistic uses and commercial uses.
CP: Yet even if your records represent an artistic use of material, they're still being sold.
JOYCE: But it's also a new work. I say that's the way it should be. All art is theft, if you think about it. It always has been and it probably always will be. But commerce has worked its way into the arts and made it all private property.
It used to be all there for the taking. The whole history of folk music, for instance, is basically taking somebody else's tune and putting new words to it or taking somebody else's words and putting new tunes to it. That's how music evolved. It's a very natural, human process. It goes back as far as monkey see, monkey do. That's our nature: to copy. And that's how we progress, how everything evolves--science, literature, art. But in the last century, all this stuff became private property.