Copyright and Politics - Musicians Ask for a Little R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Politicians have a long history of infringing copyright in their quest for music that captures the essence of their campaigns.

Many candidates use songs without seeking authorization, presumably on the premise that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. This was recently personified by Donald Trump using Queen’s “We Are the Champions" before his wife took the stage at the RNC.

The band’s response was swift, calling out that the unauthorized use was “against their wishes.” If Trump heard this response, he clearly didn’t get the message.

In the wake of Queen’s outcry, the Republican Presidential candidate played the late George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” to accompany his daughter Ivanka taking the stage, prompting Harrison’s estate to publicly renounce the use.

These instances add to the long list of musicians who have spoken out against Trump using their music without permission. In fact, politicians abusing music copyright is a broken record stuck on the same groove.

One of the more memorable copyright spats with musicians and politicians was in 1984.

That was the year Bruce Springsteen released Born in the U.S.A., one of the best-selling albums of all time. It was also the year he had a run-in with Ronald Reagan when the President wanted to use the title track for his re-election campaign.

Though the song was actually a protest against the war in Vietnam, Reagan was attracted by the seemingly patriotic lyrics.

He referred to Springsteen in a speech and played the song at his rallies without Springsteen’s consent. No surprise: the Boss accused the President of subverting the true meaning of the song to suit his political agenda.

But it’s not just Springsteen who has gone head-to-head with political figures over music rights. The Rolling Stones, Adele, Aerosmith, Neil Young and REM have all demanded Donald Trump stop using their songs during his presidential campaign.

The Stones issued a strong statement on the issue: “The Rolling Stones have never given permission to the Trump campaign to use their songs and have requested that they cease all use immediately.”

Michael Stipe from REM was more truculent: “Do not use our music or my voice for your moronic charade of a campaign.”

Although American politics has changed dramatically since the Reagan years, the song remains the same; year after year, musicians accuse politicians of copyright infringement. The candidates who have fought the law – and the law won – include Michelle Bachman, who was confronted by Tom Petty over her use of American Girl at one of her rallies in 2011, Sen. John McCain, who was sued by Jackson Browne for using his song Running on Empty in 2008, and Charlie Crist, who was forced to reach a settlement in 2011 with Talking Heads’ David Byrne over the use of Road to Nowhere in an Internet ad.

The music industry has had a long and tumultuous relationship with politicians who are prone to using well-known songs in their campaigns. To the passive observer, they are catchy and memorable, but to the musicians who make a living through their art, unauthorized use of their songs is not a fair use.

A cease-and-desist letter is usually enough to stop candidates from using a song again, but what would happen if such a case went all the way to the US Supreme Court?

To avoid claims of infringement or of false endorsement, it’s always a good idea to get permission beforehand from the artist. Music is, and always will be, a powerful way to communicate ideas, but when it comes to using popular songs, politicians might just want to let it be.

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