It’s a dark place, where Sesame Street intersects with the pummel of Skinny Puppy.
When Christopher Cerf, a composer for Sesame Street, discovered that the U.S. government was using his music to torture detainees at Guantanamo, he took part in a documentary about the use of music in war.
When Cevin Key, a founding member of the seminal industrial band Skinny Puppy found out, through the writings of former Guantanamo guard Terry Holdbrooks, Jr., that his art was being used to unhinge the minds of Guantanamo prisoners, he and Skinny Puppy used it as inspiration for their record “Weapon,” with the intention of using a fake invoice to the U.S. government as its cover art.
But the more they learned about the practice, the more disheartened they became. Eventually Skinny Puppy took a dramatic, if ultimately symbolic, action, sending the government a bill for the unsanctioned use of their work — for $666,000. “It’s kind of setting a precedent. No band has had physical proof of this before,” Cevin Key said in an interview, referencing Holdbrooks’ book and willigness to testify to what he saw at the prison, “and now we have it.” While the initial invoice hasn’t gotten a response yet — the BBC reported that the U.S. claimed not to have received it — Skinny Puppy’s action has.
The legality of their case is, unsurprisingly, fraught with complications. “At first glance, such a claim for copyright infringement is likely to fail for several reasons,”Howell O’Rear told Billboard.biz, founding partner of the Nashville law firm McInteer & O’Rear, which often litigates intellectual property disputes. “First, the federal government may have immunity.” O’Rear points out that the prison in Cuba may not qualify as a “public” performance under the Copyright Act since it isn’t on U.S. soil, as well as the possibility Guantanamo is covered by a blanket license by one of the performing rights organizations.
As well, it may be that Skinny Puppy would only be awarded $750 in statutory damages, the minimum allowed by law, due to a provision in the Copyright Act.
Skinny Puppy’s tactics have gone a long way to refocus a spotlight on this long-rumored practice. “Until it becomes a media issue, they probably wouldn’t feel like they need to respond.”
“We have expedited the recent invoice,” Key said, “so I’m sure we’ll have some sort of response from them fairly soon.” To do so they enlisted the help of Holdbrooks and a reporter who had worked to verify Holdbrooks’ claims, helping Skinny Puppy suss out exactly how to bill the U.S. government.
While a single invoice is easily ignored by an organization as monolithic and opaque as the United States, perhaps a coalition of artists — Nine Inch Nails, Slayer and Metallica’s music has been said to have been used for the same purpose, not to mention Sesame Street — would have a good chance of attracting the sort of attention that the executive branch couldn’t ignore. There’s an ocean of possibilities for the burgeoning campaign — none of which Key would speculate on, though he did hint at the wider picture. “I’m sure that BMI and ASCAP would like to know that [this] music has been used illegally. There’s many different avenues other than just the band being demoralized.”
Half-joking, Key suggests the government form it’s own bands to make its own music for torture. “They probably would.” And, predictably, the specific Skinny Puppy tracks used at Guantanamo “were always songs dealing with awareness of political corruption,” lamented Key.
“We’re doing a 32-show tour of America right now, so if someone wants, they can come and torture themselves.”