What Happens When Musicians Oppose Songs For Political Use?

Today, the mixing of music and politics are taking on a different form.  In recent weeks a group of artists have criticized presidential candidates John McCain and Barrack Obama for using songs at pubic appearances.  Just this week, Foo Fighters released a statement asking John McCain to stop using the song “My Hero”.  In a public statement, the group said:

“The saddest thing about this is that `My Hero’ was written as a celebration of the common man and his extraordinary potential,” the band said in a statement. “To have it appropriated without our knowledge and used in a manner that perverts the original sentiment of the lyric just tarnishes the song.”

Other artists such as Van Halen, John Cougar Mellencamp, and Bruce Springsteen have also made similar requests to the McCain camp.  Heart went as far to send a cease-and-desist letter to stop the usage of their song “Barracuda” during the Republican National Convention.   However, the McCain campaign used “Barracuda” regardless of the groups attempt to prevent usage.  Afterwards, Heart had the following to say:

“Sarah Palin’s views and values in NO WAY represent us as American women. We ask that our song ‘Barracuda’ no longer be used to promote her image. The song ‘Barracuda’ was written in the late 70s as a scathing rant against the soulless, corporate nature of the music business, particularly for women. (The ‘barracuda’ represented the business.) While Heart did not and would not authorize the use of their song at the RNC, there’s irony in Republican strategists’ choice to make use of it there.”

Obama is also guilty of unnverving some artists this season as well.  Soul legend Sam Moore also asked the Obama camp to stop using “Soul Man.”

Can Musicians protect themselves?

The answer appears to be more complex than a simple yes or no answer.  From the looks of it, artists don’t really have much control over the situation.  The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) controls how songs are used by selling licenses.  The McCain camp, and, although unclear, the Obama camp have both purchased licenses to legally use music for campaign purposes, which mean a vast catalog of any song registered with ASCAP is at their disposal.  Techdirt had the following to say about the matter:

There’s nothing these bands can do from a legal standpoint. Assuming the venue where the music is being played has paid its standard ASCAP license, they can play whatever they want. So when the Foo Fighters make statements like: “It’s frustrating and infuriating that someone who claims to speak for the American people would repeatedly show such little respect for creativity and intellectual property” is somewhat misleading. It implies that McCain is somehow breaking intellectual property laws. He is not. No matter how much a musician dislikes it, they can’t stop these kinds of uses, thanks to the way performance licenses work.

However, after doing a bit of research, the Plain Dealer/Politico reported the following:

Though an ASCAP or BMI license is usually all it takes out on the campaign trail, if artists are really mad and feel the use of their music appeared to be an endorsement by them, the artist can sue under various states’ laws about right of publicity, charging false advertising. Another option would be to sue under the Lanham Act, in relation to trademark law.

Realistically, as much as artists complain and bicker about the usage of songs, you have to imagine that most musicians won’t bother suing political camps for using their music.  In the court of law, it sounds like a very difficult proposition to convince a judge. That said, Jackson Browne filed a lawsuit in August over McCain using his song “Running on Empty” in a TV ad.  The Huffington Post reported that McCain’s usage of the song serves an endorsement even though Browne is a life-long liberal.  A representative for Browne said:

“In light of Jackson Browne’s lifelong commitment to Democratic ideals and political candidates, the misappropriation of Jackson Browne’s endorsement is entirely reprehensible, and I have no doubt that a jury will agree.”

Although artists feel they are falsely being represented by candidates using their songs, it raises the issue regarding ownership of content.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear cut answer to that either.  Especially since any person or organization can purchase a license to legally use songs.

The real damage is to the candidate if they choose to ignore the complaint.  Even if a political candidate has a license, you’d figure the smart political move is to respect the artist’s wishes, with a vast catalog available to select from, and explore using other songs from candidates the support you and/or your party at least.  It doesn’t pay for the complaints to draw attention that kind of negative attention in the public spotlight.  It makes the candidates look pompous and arrogant.

No matter how you look at it, pick any tune you want.  It all leads to the presidential candidates blowing a lot of hot air.

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2 comments on “What Happens When Musicians Oppose Songs For Political Use?
  1. McCain should have used Van Palin, not Van Halen. Go here and you’ll see what I mean.

    I’m Pullin’ For Palin – The Unofficial Tribute To Our Future VPILF

  2. Pingback: What Happens When Musicians Oppose Songs For Political Use? at Republican On Best Political Blogs

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