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Copyright: A Curious Case of CD Confusion

As we drift further and further away from physical mediums for art and become more connected through the internet, the real purpose and value of a "copyright" blurs. In this periodic series on copyrights, I'll take various angles on the idea of copyright and see if we can wrap our heads around the whole idea.

It's 1991, and U2 is at the top of their game with the reinvention of their sound on Achtung Baby, which later went on to go platinum EIGHT times on the US Billboard 200 Top Albums list. 

Life was good.

Then this started appearing in stores.

Fans were furious.

It was an EP featuring a remix of the song "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" that the band made so famous. Except this version featured the original song mangled, kazoos, and Casey Kasem (of American Top 40 and Scooby Doo fame) shouting profanities at his staff.

Uh, what?

Turns out it wasn't U2 releasing an album called Negativland, it was Negativland releasing their EP named U2, with a picture of a U2 bomber on the cover. But people at the stores didn't know that. If you see the words U2, you expect Bono and crew doing their thing. 

It was a joke.

Needless to say, U2's lawyers unleashed their full legal fury on Negativland. Negativland (obviously) expected this lawsuit. That was the point of this artistic endeavor, to question the nature of intellectual property. The band's defense was that it fell under the umbrella of Fair Use. 

They lost, but that leaves an interesting question: Is this fair use appropriation of the music of U2? Where is the line between outright stealing (Ice Ice Baby not giving writing credits for the bassline) versus using samples in an entirely original way (Girl Talk and other mashup artists)? Should we have to pay royalties to write a song in the pattern of the twelve bar blues? What do you think?

For a more in-depth covering of this incident, check out Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2 that Negativland released later in the 90s.

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