On sampling

Intellectual property (IP) law has become an increasingly important part of everyday American dialogue and culture during the last 20 years. Piracy in the ’80s, via tape trading, evolved first to Napster and then to today’s BitTorrent. Laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and technologies like digital rights management keep up the debate about what we can and cannot do with creative works.

Probably the most interesting debate related to IP is the issue of sampling, re-using pieces of existing songs to make new songs. This has been revisited lately with artists like DJ Danger Mouse (now part of Gnarls Barkley) bringing the “mash-up” into mainstream cultural awareness, and artists like Pittsburgh’s Girl Talk having to release their popular sample-based music on smaller labels like Illegal Art because of problems with getting permission to use the samples used to make it. However, this is just a new dance-based angle on a much older issue.

Negativland is another band dealing with sampling legality. Using a style often termed “plunderphonics” (a term coined by John Oswald, originator of the technique), they use samples in a sort of collage to create their pieces. Sound clips, including outtakes from radio broadcasts, education films, and news reports, are used without any other adornment and mashed together.

Their best-known release is U2*, a record released in 1991 parodying U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and *America’s Top 40 host Casey Kasem. This album includes extensive samples of U2 and Kasem, over which Negativland placed samples of children’s shows and themselves playing kazoos. Naturally, Island Records (U2’s label) sued, claiming copyright infringement and intentional, deliberate confusion of U2 fans. Negativland lost, and U2* is still illegal for sale in the U.S. (but it is on http://www.negativland.com/*).

They later rereleased these tracks on 2001’s bootleg These Guys Are From England And Who Gives A Shit, with more political songs containing samples saying “copying is a criminal act,” “they’re trying to target Island Records,” “even if you too have done nothing wrong,” “oh, please don’t sue us, we’re really sorry about this,” and others, highlighting the issue at hand quite explicitly and making an impassioned plea for relaxed copyright law. In “their own” words: “Can’t be blase about it … it might be the music business, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous.”