Negativland is one of those episodes in U2’s history where nobody comes out looking very good. The band Negativland look a bit like thieves, U2 look like jerks, and Island Records look like bullies. As is often the case in these situations though, everything is fluid, not all is as it seems, and the impressions given could interchange between any of the groups depending on your perspective.
Short summary: in 1991 Negativland (a largely unknown group then and now) released a song with “U2” on the cover in giant letters, and their own name in tiny letters. The song was a parody of I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. Island Records sued them, saying it was a trademark violation. After a legal battle Negativland withdrew the song, although it has appeared in a number of places since then, and they have made several other items related to the song and legal events. If you want more detail, google it.
Negativland had an interesting idea and ran with it. I tend to agree with them that parody should be fine, in fact protected, but it is possible to take it too far (how much is parody and how much is original work?). But where I think they stepped over the line is in their cover, splashing U2 in big letters on it. They put a tiny U2 spy plane on there, presumably to try and say “hey, we were talking about the plane,” but that tells me that they were deliberately using the band name and just pretending. I actually think they’d have a better case without it, believe it or not. But clearly they were trying to use the U2 band name. If they had a different title and cover I’d be fine with what they did.
Island Records look bad because they jump in with lawyers, as a big label trying to bully the small guys. I do appreciate many of the small people in music, and usually like them much better than the big labels. I have issues with Paul McGuinness and his comments at times about people taking money from the labels. I think the world would be a better place without big labels (these days they add little or nothing) and certainly without lawyers (at least, without them running the show). But they do have to protect their clients, and in this case they had a point for at least some of it. If they’d attacked the music more than the cover I’d have issues, but that wasn’t so much of the case.
And U2 the band end up looking like jerks because it was their label jumping in. There were stories about how Edge got trapped on an interview show (a story in itself, I really dislike people trying to trick or trap others like that), and he sort of apologized for the actions of the label, saying that the band didn’t necessarily agree with it. I think the band themselves don’t generally have a problem with people sampling their music - they do it to others, others have done it to them.
All in all, a fairly distasteful episode in the band’s history. I write about it because it seems to come up every now and then as a slam against the band, but if you look into it enough, then like I said no-one comes out looking too good.