From “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” in 1840 to “City of Blinding Lights” in 2008, political campaigns have long used songs as political tools—often without permission. This week, a powerful group of artists and songwriters banded together to change that.
Joining forces with the nonprofit Artist Rights Alliance, stars ranging from Lorde and Sia to Mick Jagger and Elton John wrote a strongly-worded letter to the Democratic and Republican Campaign Committees to prevent their songs from being used to prop up candidates or positions that they don’t endorse. The letter demands the establishment of “clear policies requiring campaigns supported by your committees to seek the consent of featured recording artists, songwriters, and copyright owners before publicly using their music in a political or campaign setting.”
There is not only an obvious moral case to be made for this position, but a legal one as well. The letter warns campaigns that “the legal risks are clear,” detailing the various intellectual property and tort provisions that can be violated when campaigns use songs without proper permission. It also makes a strategic case to politicians, noting that “no politician benefits from forcing a popular artist to publicly disown and reject them.”
This letter may be a result of recurring Trump campaign violations of these principles. From The Rolling Stones to Neil Young, major artists have sent the Trump campaign legal warnings recently to stop using their music in campaign events. The estate of the late Tom Petty also objected to the Trump Campaign’s use of Petty’s song “I Won’t Back Down” at Trump’s Tulsa, Oklahoma rally on June 20th. The family wrote, “Tom Petty would never want a song of his used for a campaign of hate” that “leaves too many Americans and common sense behind.” (Interestingly, George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign also used the same song without permission, and also got a cease and desist letter from Petty.)
The artists who joined forces this week point out that “this is not a new problem. Or a partisan one. Every election cycle brings stories of artists and songwriters frustrated to find their work being used in settings that suggest endorsement or support of political candidates without their permission or consent.”
The law here is ambiguous: technically speaking, the public-performance licenses that arenas and other public venues get from songwriters’ associations like ASCAP or BMI could cover any event that happens there. But Lawrence Iser, prominent intellectual property lawyer who helped Jackson Browne successfully sue the McCain campaign in 2008 over its use of “Running on Empty,” cites an artist’s “right of publicity”—the right to protect their public image from association. Iser argues that “Even if Donald Trump has the ASCAP right to use a Neil Young song, does Neil have the right to nevertheless go after him on right of publicity? I say he does.”
It will be fascinating to see how the Democratic and Republican Campaign Committees respond to this new chorus of organized resistance. This week’s letter gave the committees until August 10th to formulate a response that makes “funding, logistical support, and participation in committee programs, operations, and events” contingent upon signing the pledge “that all candidates you support will seek consent from featured recording artists and songwriters before using their music in campaign and political settings.”
Regardless of the RNC’s response, the Trump Campaign may be in luck, as Neil Young has already invited them to use a new version of his 2006 song, “Lookin’ for a Leader,” in upcoming events. Refreshed for the 2020 election, it includes new lines like “hiding in his bunker / something else to lie about.” It remains to be seen whether the Trump Campaign will take Young up on his offer.