Political Campaigns and Copyrighted Music

At a recent political rally, the Trump campaign played Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down”. When the singer’s family found out, a cease-and-desist letter was sent, claiming that neither the singer, while still alive, nor his family, endorse the President and his political stances, and therefore don’t want Petty’s music associated with the campaign.

But despite copyrights on Petty’s music, there isn’t as much legal ground as the family might hope for ordering the campaign not to use the song.

Why is that? If they own the copyright to the song, then shouldn’t they be able to stop someone from using it?

When someone wants to use a copyrighted song, permission must be sought. But it is practicably impossible for a venue that plays a lot of music to reach out to every artist and ask permission for each song. Enter broad licenses issued by performance rights organizations like ASCAP and BMI. These licenses allow public venues to play a broad catalog of songs for a fee, without the risk of infringement. Usage under these broad licenses means that it is much more difficult to stop individuals from using specific songs.

Over recent years however, various artists have objected to their music being used for political campaigns. To address that, efforts have been made by ASCAP and BMI for artists to withdraw permission in these instances, by creating licenses for political entities that allow them to exclude individual songs.

But one proven way around that is the venues, arenas and stadiums, where the rallies take place have their own licenses, and those venues aren’t under the political entity rules.

If politicians can’t be stopped from using songs under copyright laws, the best recourse may simply be a public statement from the artist stating his views on the candidate. If the harm of using a song for a campaign rally boils down to people thinking the artist endorses the candidate, and the artist comes out with a vocal disavowal of the candidate and his campaign, it may even cause the campaign to look elsewhere for music, than from an artist vocally in opposition.