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The Unacceptable Face of Plagiarism?

Pop Parody Panic

"This is bullshit. Nobody cares. These guys are from England and who gives a shit?"

Well, so says Casey Kasem, sampled on a fun little record bearing the letter "U" and the numeral "2". That loveable San Francisco-based band Negativland were at it again. Their single U2, released by SST in 1991, takes the Irish band's track I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, from the album The Joshua Tree, and subjects it to savage parody. The result? A neat little single and a nasty big lawsuit from U2's label, Island Records, and their publishers, Warner-Chappell music.

Negativland have been around for over a decade now, mixing bizarre music and found tapes since their eponymous debut album from 1980. They've grown in sophistication quite considerably since then. In 1987, SST and Swiss label Rec Rec jointly released their fourth album, Escape From Noise, a classic piece of satirical tape-collage. It's at the same time a wide-ranging survey of the omnipresence of noise in modern society, and a cheap but witty comment on everything from commercial radio to religion. Maybe not that big a jump.

One track from this, Christianity is Stupid, led to Negativland's biggest media exposure so far, when they claimed in a press release that the track was linked to the David Brom axe murder case, where 16-year old David Brom murdered his parents and two siblings. The storm of media attention that this bogus claim generated was the foundation of one side of the band's next release, the Helter Stupid album. This incorporates news and other recordings related to the media's interest in the Negativland / Brom link. It also devotes its attention to other well known cases where "rock bands" have been accused of inspiring murders, and even incorporates some satanic backmasking of its own.

It's a reasonably sophisticated, and certainly very entertaining examination of the way in which the media distorts and manipulates news stories, even if it begins to look as if the band were spending a little bit too much time navel-gazing.

But if the Christianity is Stupid track and its aftermath threw Negativland into the press spotlight, then the U2 single did so even more markedly. The single displays the "U2" in huge letters over a picture of the U-2 spyplane, and with "Negativland" far less prominently featured. Island Records claimed that this "constitutes a transparent use of deceptive packaging designed to dupe U2's millions of fans throughout the United States into believing that this ... is the widely-anticipated new album by U2". In addition, they took the view that Negativland's version of I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For might damage U2's "good name", implying that anyone buying the record might even believe it to be the real U2. Unable to afford to go all the way to court, Negativland and SST reluctantly agreed to Island's demands. These include:

Everyone who received a copy of the record has been asked to return it, and warned not to promote, distribute or sell it. All remaining copies of the single, including those returned, are to be given to Island, to be destroyed.

Copyright in the recordings to be assigned to Island and Warner-Chappell.

Payment of $25,000 and half the wholesale proceeds from singles sold and not returned.

All materials used in the production of the single (such as manufacturing plates) to be handed over to Island Records.

Negativland have responded as follows:

"Our single deals, in part, with our perception of the group U2 as an international cultural phenomenon, and therefore particularly worthy of artistic comment and criticism. Island's legal action thoroughly ignores the possibility that any such artistic right or inclination might exist. Apparently, Island's sole concern in this act of censorship is their determination to control the marketplace, as if the only reason to make records is to make money.
"This issue is not a contest among equals. U2 records are among the most popular in history: The Joshua Tree sold over 5 million copies. Negativland releases usually sell about 10,000 to 15,000 copies each. (We could not) afford the tremendous costs involved in fighting for our rights in court. Island could."

SST attempted to contact U2's management, jokingly asking them to play a benefit concert to help out Negativland. U2's manager, not having heard the single, told Rockbeat magazine: "If it's good enough, maybe they'll put it on a b-side or something". U2 evidently did get to hear about the single, for according to president of Island UK, Chris Blackwell: "I have been getting a huge amount of hassle from the members of U2 not to press for payment".

SST decided to get some more attention by producing and selling "Kill Bono" t-shirts. Negativland have since released a press release disassociating themselves from SST entirely, apparently feeling the t-shirt to be "boneheaded". This may seem like surprising sensitivity from a band that exploited the David Brom tragedy for all it was worth. Negativland also claim that SST were demanding that the band take 100% responsibility for Island's damages. As a result, Negativland say they have parted company with SST, and have attacked the label for sharing the exploitative attitude of the corporate labels SST usually claims to oppose. SST's usual slogan is "Corporate Rock Sucks". Negativland suggests this should read "Corporate SST Still Sucks Rock".

All this might seem simple enough, but given their record with Christianity is Stupid, I'm inclined not to take Negativland press releases at face value. They have released a further, supposedly final, single on SST, titled Guns. Musically, it's just more of the same sound-collage parody of America's obsession with firearms. However, the band dedicate the single "to the members of our favourite Irish rock band, their record label, and their attorneys". At the same time, the cover uses the same styling and imagery as the U2 single. The U2 title is replaced by the word Guns, and a large revolver is shown pointed directly at a U-2 spyplane. Any connection with the "Kill Bono" t-shirts? Surely not.

The Acceptable Face of Plagiarism

Negativland point out in one of their many press releases that "creative theft" has been an important part of folk, blues, jazz and rock music for a long time, and suggest that it's time the music business recognised this. "Ownership" is an outdate concept. Music that we do not own and have little control over is part of our everyday environment, through adverts, muzak, television etc. And the advent of cheap recording technology has meant that sounds supposedly owned by other people can be grabbed from the airwaves, manipulated and distributed with ease. These are facts of life. It's unlikely that we'll ever return to the past, although the music industry still behaves as if this were somehow possible.

Negativland adopt what they see as a responsible attitude against this background. They don't simply copy other people's work wholesale, or bootleg it. They even agree that "every artist is due whatever rewards he or she can reap from his or her own products". Defending their U2 single, they call upon legal precedent: they believe that under U.S. law, their use of samples from I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For is a legally protected "fair use", as it was for the purpose of parody, comment and criticism. John Oswald (see below) made the same point regarding his banned Plunderphonic recording.

It's not that Negativland are doing anything illegal, the band say, it's just that they lack the financial resource to prove the point in the courts.

One thing that Negativland have repeatedly returned to in their defence is that they deserve protection for what they do as "artists". They argue that "art" is whatever "artists" do: and in the late twentieth century, as at any time in history, artists simply reflect their environment. "Art needs to begin to acquire an equal footing with marketers in court", they say. How about a thorough revamping of the antique copyright, publishing, and cultural property laws to bring them into comfortable accord with modern technology and a healthy respect for the artist's impulse to incorporate public influences?"

I see two problems with this. The first is one of simple artistic arrogance. How do you decide who is an artist and who isn't? Why is this peculiar species to be afforded such special consideration under the law? Secondly, it seems to be an attempt to move the debate onto the lawyers' own ground. Apart from the concern that "artists" are taking a big risk entangling themselves ever closer in the complexities of business and law, it seems to me that it's difficult to criticise an establishment that you're part of. Whilst I don't for one moment wish any musician to suffer Negativland's fate, I wonder whether or not it's possible that by making plagiarism acceptable, you also make it safe? If you're doing something considered socially and legally acceptable, doesn't that take the edge off your criticism? How can you retain a subversive sting unless you're commenting from the outside?

Pirates on the High (C)s

Negativland are of course not the only group to fall foul of copyright lawyers for their extensive use of sampling-as-art. Composer John Oswald's CD, Plunderphonic, released in 1989, was seized and destroyed by the Canadian Recording Industry Association. The CD extensive sampling from the music of artists like The Beatles, James Brown, Metallica, Stravinsky and Michael Jackson. It was Jackson who provoked the C.R.I.A.'s action, and the CDs were withdrawn and crushed, following a threat of litigation.

Plunderphonic was produced using Oswald's own money, and distributed as shareright, borrowing the term used for some computer software. He was making no money from it, distributing it free to radio stations and libraries, so the C.R.I.A. could hardly accuse him of profiteering. The C.R.I.A. claimed that all they saw was "just another example of theft".

Plunderphonic is a different approach to plagiarism from that favoured by Negativland. John Oswald's music comes from a tradition of experimentation that has its roots in musique concréte: the cutting up and manipulation of recorded sounds to create new musical environments. The original concréte composers, like Pierre Henry and Pierre Schaeffer, used the sounds of the natural environment, or specially recorded noises from real life. Like, Negativland, Oswald views his natural environment as being modern media-reality. He applies his cut-ups and distortions to other people's music. He wasn't the first to do so, of course. In an article from 1987, he quotes the example of James Tenney, whose composition Collage 1, written in 1961, used multi-speed tape recorders and a razor blade to transform Elvis Presley's (and Carl Perkin's) Blue Suede Shoes. John Oswald takes this view of the rights and wrongs of plagiarism:

"The hit parade promenades the aural floats of pop on public display, and as curious tourists should we not be able to take our own snapshots through the crowd, rather than be restricted to the official souvenir postcards and programmes?
"All popular music is (as is all folk music by definition), essentially, if not legally, existing in a public domain. Listening to pop music isn't a matter of choice. Asked for or not, we're bombarded by it. In its most insidious state, filtered to an incessant bass line, it seeps through apartment walls and out of the heads of walk people. Although people in general are making more noise than ever before, fewer people are making more of the total noise. Difficult to ignore, pointlessly redundant to imitate, how does one not become a passive recipient?"

Plunderphonics takes hold of popular music and turns it into a texture rather than a text. It's disembowelled, the entrails thrown down to see what new omens they might present. John Oswald's music attacks the musical establishment by subverting their product, turning it to his own ends.

In the pop arena, MARRS, a collaboration between members of A.R.Kane and Colourbox created the biggest copyright storm of the eighties with their single Pump Up the Volume, which rose to the top of the charts and into a flurry of controversy thanks to its very extensive sampling of other musicians. Although it was the single that triggered a media obsession with the ethics of sampling, it was hardly the first record ever to do it. Throughout the eighties rap and hip-hop musicians had been sampling other's records in a similar way to MARRS, with limited commercial success ensuring that they avoided the controversy. And sampling of others' work goes back far further in music history.

Classical composers have long employed the compositions of others as they're source material. Themes written by another composer are taken and reworked, explored to see what light a new artist can shed on them. In more modern times, the Beatles, now victims of sampling themselves, haven't shied away from using copyright material without permission. John Lennon's unauthorised use of TV and radio broadcasts in Revolution No.9 was followed eventually by George Harrison's (successful) prosecution for subconsciously plagiarising the Chiffons' He's So Fine when writing My Sweet Lord. Since then, of course, the copyright industry has grown enormously, to the extent where even the use of a tiny sample of sound from another record is considered out-of-bounds and cause for a court case. That is, if the artist didn't ensure that appropriate payment was made for the sample beforehand. Unsurprisingly, however, it's only the commercially successful who usually get involved in these copyright problems. Nobody pays any attention to the thousands of unknown artists who either use brief samples or slavishly imitate the work of others. Presumably, the copyright lawyers understand that it's not worth suing somebody for payment if they're not rich enough to pay you. The idea behind suing is of course a nonsense: do the James Brown-samplers really cost Brown any loss of income by stealing excerpts from his music? Hardly.

It should be self-evident, however, that the Negativland and Oswald cases have little to do with loss of income. Michael Jackson and U2 could lose nothing as a result of Plunderphonic or U2 being made available. The only issue, although it's not the one the lawyers prefer to concentrate on, is that of insult. The big labels feel insulted to see their artists being treated as objects of parody, and retaliate as heavily as possible. They use the legal system to retaliate not because it's in any way relevant to the supposed "wrong" but because it's efficient and unstoppable. Negativland would do well to realise this when they're considering the issue of modern rights for artists under the legal system. It's not the detail of the legal system that's the problem. It's the way in which that entire system functions solely as a mechanism to allow the wealthy and the powerful to have their way. Ethics and legalities are irrelevant. In both Oswald's and Negativland's cases the legal system is a sledgehammer, not a forum for argument.

Finally, a group who have not, yet, suffered as result of their art. Presumably, they didn't manage to insult anyone with it.

The Tape-beatles are a group whose entire raison d'être is plagiarism. One of their activities is producing the art discussion magazine, Retrofuturism, which deals with underground art philosophy in depth. Meanwhile, sampling pervades every level of their CD on Canadian label DOVEntertainment, Music With Sound: individual sounds are sampled, musical phrases sampled, and found voices inserted at opportune moments. They're closer in style and spirit to Negativland than John Oswald. They also avoid the more grating aspects of Negativland's music: the occasionally unnerving discord and the nerdy American accents. Music With Sound is a powerful, compelling album: a trawl through the info-swamp, an attempt to invoke meaning from apparently random data. "Don't hate us because we are brilliant", they tell us: "Music With Sound is an appropriately entitled recording and complete practical guide to the current copyright controversy. Not only does it include detailed examples of unregistered, transcontextualised, and copyright protected works, it also describes a world where ideas and their consequences are not ownable. The Tape-beatles compose others' output with cost-effective wit, desperately edged. They share with you traditional-classic style music, folk, rock, pop, 'musique concréte', 'third stream' and styles so far out there that copywriters wouldn't dare touch it with a ten-foot version of the constitution. Hence it is a very useful disc for anyone with copyright questions - and far more listenable than any copyright office whining about protection for 'artist's' creative or business interests."

Music With Sound is placed in the Public Domain by The Tape-beatles, accepting Negativland's assessment of the pointlessness of copyright. Viewed simply as music (rather than as a statement), I prefer it to Negativland's music or Plunderphonics. It's punchy, engaging material, even if thirty-one tracks in 45 minutes provides a bit much to absorb at once.

Plagiarists! We Are The New Breed!

"From Stockhausen onwards it has become increasingly difficult to create new music. Not because people no longer have anything to say, but because Western society has fragmented to such a degree that it is now virtually impossible to write in the style of classical, coherent compositions. That is, music held together by a single idea, or body of ideas, with each melody and movement flowing smoothly into the next. Today, thoughts seem to break apart before they are fully formed, and then turn back on themselves in a welter of contradictions, making it impossible to create music in the traditional manner.
"The major problem of twentieth-century art is the constant demand for something new and original. The consequence of this demand is that while everything appears to change, nothing actually changes. Instead there is a constant reappearance of the same half-baked ideas, using a succession of increasingly silly names. It took thousands of years to develop the symphonic form, and yet today people demand radical innovations every week. The result is that they get exactly what they deserve - insults.
"The great advantage of plagiarism as a musical method is that it removes the need for talent, and even much application. All you really need to do is select what to plagiarise. Enthusiastic beginners might like to begin by plagiarising the work of people like Negativland, John Oswald or the Tape-Beatles. A purist will choose to plagiarise their work by simple copying; but those who feel the need to express the creative side of their personality will change a few seconds here and there, or cut it up and rearrange it.
"Plagiarism is a highly creative process because with every plagiarism a new slant is added to the work. Unfortunately, the forces of order have contrived to make plagiarism of recent music illegal, making the risk of prosecution a deterrent to even the most dedicated plagiarist. However, a few sensible precautions can be used to reduce this risk. The basic rule is to take the melodies and development of a piece, without actually sampling it note for note. Cover versions are a mundane example of this. Another possibility for avoiding prosecution is to work under an assumed name, or use non-copyrighted material.
"To conclude, plagiarism saves time and effort, improves results, and shows considerable initiative on the part of the plagiarist. As a revolutionary tool it is ideally suited to the needs of the late twentieth-century. For those who find the selection of material too much of a 'creative' challenge, the remedy is to introduce a system for randomly selecting material. Let's do away once and for all with the myth of 'genius'."

Stewart Home, and others involved in similar artistic and political currents, see plagiarism differently from Negativland or John Oswald. Negativland view it as a basic technique, used to parody, satirise or comment upon their victims. As a well-established part of modern artistic practice, whether in Kathy Acker's novel Blood and Guts in High School or Kurt Schwitters' Merz collages, Negativland see it as a tool for examining aspects of their environment and recontextualising them, juxtaposing fragments to create new meanings from old. John Oswald views "plagiarism" as taking back control: imposing your own ordering on the musical data that surrounds you, rather than simply passively accepting it. The Tape-beatles are doing something similar, employing plagiarism to see what hidden meanings might lurk within the music they steal.

The Situationist International's view of plagiarism was also concerned with taking control of information, but particularly with revising that information in order to expose the mechanisms of control that order it in the first place. Their detournement, "the integration of present or past artistic production into a superior construction of a milieu", is best remembered by their propagandist rewording of apparently mundane cartoon strips.

Stewart Home, member of the Neoist art movement, producer of the politicised art paper Smile and author of plagiarist novels, including the rather silly Pure Mania, takes a different slant on the same idea. The above appropriation of one of Home's texts (taken from Plagiarism - Art as Commodity and Strategies for its Negation) points towards Home's attitude. It's an enthusiastic two-fingers towards the cultural establishment. This is what we think of your garbage.

On a more sophisticated level, it's an attempt to confront head on the capitalist, property-based philosophy that dominates the Western world. Ownership is all important: ownership is what allows control, and control is what allows you to exploit what you own for your own benefit. If one benefits through control, then of course others are exploited through lack of it. For someone like Stewart Home, concerned with the inevitable iniquities of capitalist economics, an attack on property is something worth pursuing. And if it can irritate the world's precious "artists" too, the people so possessive about their "creative talent", then so much the better.

This is plagiarism seen not as a valid tool of the artist, as Negativland would like to have it, but plagiarism as an essential tool of the revolutionary. Ownership is not seen as an absolute right but as a peculiarity of our economic and political systems, and one that needs to be challenged.

According to Bob Jones:

"Art must always emphasise the 'individuality' of ownership and creation. Plagiarism, by contrast, is rooted in social process, communality, and a recognition that society is far more than the sum of individuals (both past and present) who constitute it. In practice, social development has always been based on plagiarism (one has only to observe children to realise that advancement is 99% imitation), but this reality is mystified by the ideology of 'art'. Art itself is based on pictorial traditions built up over thousands of years, and yet art historians and critics always focus on the very minor, usually negligible, 'innovations' of each 'individual' artist."

A Brief Summary

Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it.

Selected Bibliography

Plagiarism - Art as Commodity and Strategies for its Negation (ed. Stewart Home, Aporia Press, 1988)

Methods of Detournement (by Guy Debord and Gil Wolman, in Situationist Anthology, Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981)

Plunderphonics (by John Oswald, in Recommended Records Quarterly Vol.2 #1, November Books, 1987)

(C) Brian Duguid 1996