It seems as if no new release from the experimental-music collective Negativland comes without some free-speech controversy.
But now, the livelihood of the band, known for its unorthodox use of unlicensed sound samples and daring social commentary, is being threatened, according to Negativland co-founder Mark Hosler.
In a press release issued over the weekend, the band claimed that "recent threats by the R.I.A.A. [Recording Industry Association of America] have intimidated our CD-pressing plant into refusing to press the new Negativland CD [Over The Edge Volume 3 -- The Weatherman's Dumb Stupid Come-Out Line]," originally slated for an Aug. 17 release.
In the past, the group has been sued for copyright infringement by superstar Irish rockers U2's label, Island Records. The new release in question, one in a series of compilations tied to Negativland's long-running free-form weekly radio program, contains uncleared samples of work by the psychedelic band Pink Floyd and disco icons the Village People, among others, according to Hosler. This caused copyright violation concerns from the plant that has pressed the band's CDs for the past four years.
"We heard about this a week ago and were like, 'What the hell is going on?' " Hosler said, refusing to name the pressing plant, explaining that he had not yet fully discussed the situation with the manufacturer. For all their previous legal entanglements, Negativland have never had to deal with this particular problem, Hosler said. "This whole thing of going after the manufacturers is a relatively new thing and, in a roundabout way, we think the R.I.A.A. has intimidated manufacturers into policing everything that comes through their plants."
Hosler was referring to a clause in current copyright law that makes a manufacturer of a CD liable for up to $100,000 in damages per infraction for knowingly replicating a non-licensed product. Over the past six months, the R.I.A.A -- a private, not-for-profit corporation whose member companies produce, manufacture and distribute approximately 90 percent of all legitimately recorded music in the United States -- has obtained millions of dollars in damage rewards from plants producing unlicensed compact discs, according to the association.
The R.I.A.A. has recently cracked down on violations of the law since a June CD-manufacturers conference in San Francisco, according to Frank Creighton, senior VP and director of investigations for the R.I.A.A.'s anti-piracy division. Creighton said that this provision of copyright law is not a new one.
"For years we've been going in and educating plants, meeting with their staffs and giving them a profile of what a potential pirate might look like and suggesting recommended business practices," he said.
Creighton said he had not heard the Negativland CD and that no copy had been sent to the R.I.A.A. for scrutiny, as far as he was aware. "If Negativland did not go to the record company or artists and obtain proper permission to use their material," he added, "then it is probably unauthorized, and the plant made the proper decision."
The decision to press a CD is the manufacturer's alone, Creighton said, adding that the R.I.A.A. has made it clear that it will pursue manufacturers that produce material that skirts copyright laws. A plant that unknowingly presses unlicensed material could face a fine of $500 per infringement, subject to a judge's discretion, he said.
Hatched in Berkeley, Calif., in the early '80s, the band of musical collagists, which has had a rotating lineup throughout the years, has made a career of challenging fair-use copyright laws with its CDs, which mix cultural criticism with tape loops and sound effects. Almost all of these releases have used unlicensed, copywritten material.
Negativland, headed by Hosler and his partner Don Joyce, have run afoul of the recording industry in the past on copyright issues. The biggest flap was caused by their 1991 EP U2 -- named after the popular Irish rock quartet -- which featured a parody of U2's song "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" as well as outtakes from top-40 radio countdown host Casey Kasem. U2's label, Island, and the band's publishers brought suit against Negativland and their label, SST, and the EP was eventually recalled and destroyed.
Previously, the manufacturer wouldn't worry about uncleared samples, Hosler said, because, in the music industry, that has always been a matter between the label and the artist. One of the reasons Negativland set up their own label, Seeland, Hosler added, was so that they would not have to present an outside label with the appropriate copyright clearances for their samples.
The biggest concern for Negativland, Hosler said, is that they will be unable to find any manufacturer who will help them release their future albums.
"Whether or not anyone reading this is concerned about copyright issues," Hosler said, "private business concerns are now being asked to police the content of art, and it's very disturbing and, I think, probably illegal."