The Borrowers

Seven years after their last tour, Negativland continue to fight the industry claim that Fair Use is foul, and foul use is fair

Now we like to think that good art is "original art," whatever that is. Well, there's practically nothing out there that's truly original. We just want the copyright law to recognize this in a way that will allow collage to continue and not be an illegal technique--unless you're rich and can afford all the samples. We think collage should be free.

CP: Do you have any hope that Fair Use will at some point be expanded to include that?

JOYCE: No hope at all [laughs]. Is Congress going to understand what I just said? No, they don't care. Basically, all their money comes from the corporations who now own music and everything else. They're working for them, not us.

CP: Well, what about other solutions to the problem? Say, some kind of a scale, where you determine exactly what size the sample is, and then multiply that by how many copies you sold...

JOYCE: No, I don't think you can reduce it to some kind of math. Because each [sample] is unique. That's why the Fair Use statutes within copyright law don't give broad rules like that. They say each case must be judged on its particular merits. So in Fair Use, there's no such thing as precedent.

CP: So even if the courts were to decide to give Negativland its U2 album back, and someone wanted to use this as precedent for a new work of art...

JOYCE: It wouldn't set a precedent for anybody else. I think that's correct, actually. Most people can tell immediately whether it's a work of art or whether it's a bootleg. All you have to do is listen to it, and you can tell whether there has been creative input involved, a transformation of some kind.

CP: Well, what about the argument that this is just a new kind of collaboration with the artists you're sampling, and that they deserve compensation?

JOYCE: Well, we believe there's an ethics in all this and that if you're using samples you should identify them. But no, as far as jumping in and being part of the royalties or something, it makes collage almost impossible. We use hundreds and hundreds [of samples] on a record, and to find all those sources and find out who owns them--then try to get their permission and pay them money before we do it--means we just wouldn't do the work. It would be impossible. So, yeah, some hip-hop band using one or two samples--their label is contacting the other label and they are paying clearance rights, and they are doing it all legally. Fine. But a lot of us independent music-collage people out here are in a much more complex situation.

CP: I think it was John Oswald who said that if creativity is a field, then copyright is the fence.

JOYCE: Philosophically, yeah. It's like the whole world comes into your house through all this media. It's in your living space. I kind of feel it's mine when it reaches me. In some way, it becomes mine. And that is exactly how culture should work. Culture is supposed to be a shared thing.

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