Reznor is an outspoken critic of the music industry, particularly the influence that music businesses have exerted upon his creative freedom. Nine Inch Nails has clashed with several music industry corporations, culminating in Reznor's decision to proceed as an independent artist who does not employ the financial backing of the music industry to fund his creative output.
In the early 1990s, Nine Inch Nails was involved in a much-publicized feud with TVT Records, the first record label to sign the band. Reznor objected to the label's attempted interference with his intellectual property. Ultimately, Nine Inch Nails entered into a joint venture with Interscope Records in which Reznor forfeited a portion of his publishing rights to TVT Music in exchange for the freedom of having his own Nothing Records imprint. In 2005, Reznor sued his former friend and manager John Malm, co-founder of Nothing, for fraud, breach of contract and fiduciary duty, and other claims. Their relationship was formally severed in a New York courtroom, with damages awarded to Reznor in excess of $3 million.
At the behest of Prudential Securities bankruptcy proceedings, TVT put the rights to Reznor's recordings for the label on auction in 2005. This offer included the whole TVT catalog, including Pretty Hate Machine, and a percentage of royalties from Reznor's song publishing company, Leaving Hope Music/TVT Music. Rykodisc, which did not win the auction but was able to license the rights from Prudential, reissued the out-of-print Pretty Hate Machine CD on November 22, 2005. Ryko also reissued the "Head Like a Hole" CD and a vinyl edition of Pretty Hate Machine in 2006. The label considered releasing a deluxe edition, just as Interscope had done for The Downward Spiral. They were influenced by Reznor and liked the idea, but did not want to pay him for the album and the idea was scrapped.
Universal Music Group
In May 2007, Reznor made a post on the official Nine Inch Nails website skeptical of Universal Music Group (parent company of Nine Inch Nails' record label, Interscope Records) for its pricing and distribution plans for Year Zero. He labeled the company's retail pricing of Year Zero in Australia as "ABSURD", concluding that "as a reward for being a 'true fan' you get ripped off". Reznor went on to say that he hated Interscope, and in later years the "climate" of record labels may have an increasingly ambivalent impact on consumers who buy music. Reznor's post, specifically his criticism of the recording industry at large, elicited considerable media attention. In September 2007, Reznor continued his attack on UMG at a concert in Australia, urging fans there to "steal" his music online instead of purchasing it legally. Reznor went on to encourage the crowd to "steal and steal and steal some more and give it to all your friends and keep on stealing".
Reznor announced on October 8, 2007, that Nine Inch Nails had fulfilled its contractual commitments to Interscope Records and was now free to proceed as a "totally free agent, free of any recording contract with any label". Reznor also speculated that he would release the next Nine Inch Nails album online in a similar fashion to The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!, which he produced. Reznor later released the first nine tracks of Ghosts I–IV and the entirety of The Slip in 2008 for free download.
In another post on his website, Reznor again openly criticized Universal Music Group for preventing him from launching an official interactive fan remix website. Universal declined to host the site just days before its scheduled launch, citing the potential "accusation", in Reznor's words, "that they are sponsoring the same technical violation of copyright they are suing [other media companies] for". Reznor wrote in response that he was "challenged at the last second to find a way of bringing this idea to life without getting splashed by the urine as these media companies piss all over each other's feet". Despite these obstacles, the remix website was launched in November 2007.
Nine Inch Nails was scheduled to perform at the 2005 MTV Movie Awards, but withdrew from the show due to a disagreement with the network over the use of an unaltered image of George W. Bush as a backdrop to the band's performance of "The Hand That Feeds". Soon afterwards, Reznor wrote on his official website: "Apparently, the image of our president is as offensive to MTV as it is to me." MTV replied that it respected Reznor's point of view, but was "uncomfortable" with the performance being "built around partisan political statements". A performance by Foo Fighters replaced Nine Inch Nails' time slot on the show. During the Lights in the Sky tour in 2008, some performances of "The Hand that Feeds" had the image of Bush on a video screen behind the band. At some gigs leading up to the election, the face of Bush slowly morphed during the song into the face of John McCain.
In 2006, after being alerted by a fan website, Reznor issued a cease and desist to Fox News Channel for using three songs from The Fragile on air without permission. The songs "La Mer", "The Great Below", and "The Mark Has Been Made" appeared in an episode of War Stories with Oliver North detailing the battle of Iwo Jima. A post appeared on Reznor's blog, which read: "Thanks for the Fox News heads-up. A cease and desist has been issued. FUCK Fox Fucking News."
As part of the alternate reality game which accompanied the release of Year Zero, three tracks from the album were intentionally "leaked" prior to their official release at a number of Nine Inch Nails concerts on USB flash drives. The high-quality audio files quickly circulated the internet, and owners of websites hosting the files soon received cease and desist orders from the Recording Industry Association of America, despite the fact that the viral campaign, and the use of USB drives, was sanctioned by Nine Inch Nails' record label. The source that broke the story was quoted as saying, "These fucking idiots are going after a campaign that the label signed off on."
The music of Nine Inch Nails has reportedly been used by the U.S. military as music torture to break down the resolve of detainees. Reznor objected to the use of his music in this way with the following message on the front page of the Nine Inch Nails website: "It's difficult for me to imagine anything more profoundly insulting, demeaning and enraging than discovering music you've put your heart and soul into creating has been used for purposes of torture. If there are any legal options that can be realistically taken they will be aggressively pursued, with any potential monetary gains donated to human rights charities. Thank GOD this country has appeared to side with reason and we can put the Bush administration's reign of power, greed, lawlessness and madness behind us."
Aside from disagreements over the usage of Nine Inch Nails material, some corporations have dismissed content due to perceived obscenity. In 2009, Apple rejected an update to Nine Inch Nails' iPhone application, NIN: Access, because it found The Downward Spiral to contain "offensive or obscene content", referring to the lyrical content. Reznor criticized their decision, citing the audio was also available through the iTunes application.
A similar incident involving digital content distribution occurred in 2013 when Nine Inch Nails re-released the original 1993 film Broken on Vimeo. Within hours of launch, the video was removed due to a terms of service violation on material that "harass, incite hatred or depict excessive violence".