Politicians and Rock-n-Roll

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President Richard Nixon and King Elvis Presley

We see it every election cycle: a candidate stands on a podium while a crowd cheers and music blares. Ronald Regan blasted “Born In The U.S.A.” George W. Bush boomed “Brand New Day” Donald Trump roared “Rockin’ in the Free World.”

The music inspires patriotism, rejuvenation and spirit, but what if the songwriter does not support the politician?

Can Bruce Springsteen, Sting, and Neil Young stop a politician from playing their songs?

The answer follows the lines of all great legal answers — “Maybe.”

There are a few factors that must be reviewed to determine if a musical artist can cease a politician from using his or her music.

Travis Life

   1. Did the venue have a license?
   2. Is the rally recorded?
   3. Is the songwriter’s voice used in the sound recording?
   4. Where does the songwriter live?

If the political rally is in a venue that has a performance license from a Performance Rights Organization (such as ASCAP, BMI, SESAC), the venue typically purchases a blanket license from the Performance Rights Organizations (PROs) that permits these venues to perform all of the songs listed with the PRO.

Normally, this blanket license is sufficient to cover most political rallies.

Some political campaigns go the extra mile and purchase their own blanket license from these PROs. This additional license is usually purchased to cover any event occurring inside a venue that already has a PRO blanket license, such as an outdoor event at a park or farm.

If the rally is recorded on video, then the political campaign must obtain a different license from the songwriter (or more likely the songwriter’s publishing company) and a license from the owner of the sound recording. Here, the songwriter has more control over the license of his or her song as opposed to the song being lumped together with thousands of other songs in a blanket license.

So, let’s say I’m a songwriter and I do not want a certain political candidate to use my song at a rally, but the political candidate is not videotaping the event, and the venue and the campaign have a blanket license from all of the PROs. What can I do?

Right of Publicity

Most states have laws that protect an individual’s name and likeness from being appropriated by others, without permission, for commercial use. While this right is not recognized nationally, if a songwriter resides in a state that recognizes the Right of Publicity, he or she may have a claim against the politician.

 
Trademark

The Lanham Act (the federal statute governing trademarks) protects an artist’s trademark or brand by offering protection against false endorsement in which the use of an artist’s work can imply the artist’s support. A songwriter can file a lawsuit claiming that Political Candidate’s use of his song is confusing the public into think that songwriter endorses Political Candidate.

 
Press

This is not a legal solution, but a practical one. What does every politician hate more than a crying baby in his or her arms? Bad press. Songwriter contacts his or her local television station or newspaper and lets them know that this politician does not have songwriter’s permission to use the song.

 
Ultimately politicians will never stop using popular music at rallies. Music creates feelings, and politicians know that these feelings can lead to their political success. However, blind use without permission from the songwriter will defeat any good feeling created by the use of songwriter’s music at any rally.

Travis Life, an attorney at Leavens, Strand & Glover, LLC advises artists and businesses on intellectual property and the entertainment industry. Leavens, Strand & Glover, LLC in Chicago and Nashville.

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