The Letter U and the Numeral 2 Night Thread


U2 is a withdrawn EP by the band Negativland, released in 1991 on SST Records. The EP and the band gained notoriety when lawyers representing Island Records (the record label of the band U2) sued over misleading artwork and the use of unauthorized samples. The title of the EP “U2” was displayed in very large type on the front of the packaging, and “Negativland” in a smaller typeface. An image of the Lockheed U-2 spy plane was also on the cover.

The two songs featured on the EP were parodies of U2’s well-known 1987 song, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, which included the song being played on kazoos and about 35 seconds of original U2 song. In addition, the song also featured several profane rants from disc jockey Casey Kasem, lapsing out of his more polished and professional tone (which was captured by several engineers, who had been passing the tape around for a number of years), CB-radio conversation, and commentary from The Weatherman, one of the group’s occasional members.

Despite its cover, once heard it could never be mistaken for a recording by U2, it would never be taken for anything other than a parody, and it would be unlikely – since Negativland had never sold more than 15,000 copies of any release – to reach a huge audience. However, within two weeks Island filed a suit on two counts, claiming that the song’s cover art violated trademark protection and that its music’s “unauthorized use of a sound recording” violated copyright law. Island demanded that every copy of the single and all materials for its promotion and manufacture be immediately delivered to the company for destruction and that the copyright for the EP be reassigned to Island. In less than a month, Negativland and SST Records stood to lose an estimated US $70,000, which was more than Negativland had made in 11 years as a band. The group counted on the “fair use” wrinkle to justify the U2 EP, but faced with massive potential expenses and growing pressure from both Island and SST, the band agreed to settle out of court. SST, which stood to lose even more, pressured them to accept the settlement.

In June 1992, R. U. Sirius, publisher of Mondo 2000, was contacted by U2’s publicists regarding the possibility of interviewing Dave “The Edge” Evans as a means of promoting the multi-million dollar Zoo TV Tour. It must be noted that this tour was known for its liberal use of sampling and found sounds, without a hint of irony following the legal proceedings with Negativland just a year earlier. The interview began innocently enough, though Sirius decided to have his friends Mark Hosler and Don Joyce (members of Negativland) conduct the interview for him, without Evans’ knowledge. They began asking him of U2’s thoughts on the ideas surrounding found sounds and sampling copyrighted material. At this point, they revealed their identities. An embarrassed Edge purported that U2 were bothered by the sledgehammer legal approach Island Records took in their lawsuit, and furthermore that much of the legal wrangling took place without U2’s knowledge: “by the time we [U2] realized what was going on it was kinda too late, and we actually did approach the record company on your [Negativland’s] behalf and said, ‘Look, c’mon, this is just, this is very heavy…'” Island Records reported to Negativland that U2 never authorized samples of their material; Evans’ response was, “that’s complete bollocks, there’s like, there’s at least six records out there that are direct samples from our stuff.”

Though it finally acquiesced on Island’s cover-art claims, Negativland has never weakened its stance on revising copyright law. In 1995, they released a book, with accompanying CD, called Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2, about the whole U2 incident (from Island Records first suing Negativland for the release to Negativland gaining back control of their work four years later). The book ends with a large appendix of essays about fair use and copyright by Negativland and others, telling the story with newspaper clippings, court papers, faxes, press releases and other documents arranged in chronological order.

Sources: Wikipedia; Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2 by Negativland; “The Letter U and the Numeral 2” by Colin Berry (Wired, 1/1/95)

Have a Great Night Thread, Avocado!