It’s as predictable as a power chord in a rock ballad: Sooner or later, a candidate will play a catchy song on the 2016 presidential campaign trail, and the artist who wrote it will complain. Headlines ensue. Lawsuits may be filed.
We got a taste of the music-meets-politics dynamics during last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, when no bit of stagecraft went unnoticed, including the music playing as each GOP presidential wannabe took the stage. Metallica for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Ben Carson entered to “Life Is a Highway” by Rascal Flatts. AC/DC’s “Back in Black” blared for former Texas governor Rick Perry.
At CPAC, the use of those songs was probably kosher, copyright lawyers explained, since most large venues (like the Gaylord Convention Center, where CPAC took place) have proper licenses, and the musical clips in question were brief.
But the music will play on, and eventually, there will be another flap. Candidates and artists have been clashing for decades. President Ronald Reagan’s use of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” didn’t sit well with The Boss. Rocker Tom Petty objected to former representative Michele Bachmann’s presidential campaign’s playing his “American Girl.”
Last month, Boston punk band Dropkick Murphys called out Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker for playing their signature “I’m Shipping Up to Boston.”
So why haven’t candidates figured this out yet? We checked in with a couple of copyright lawyers, who offered a few explanations.
1. They don’t know the rules. This is certainly plausible, since the laws are complicated. An example? It may be okay to use a song in one setting, like a convention center, but taboo in another. How much of the song they use also could be an issue.
2. They think they’re covered. In copyright-infringement lawsuits, campaigns and other entities have offered a few lines of defense, namely the first amendment and “fair use” doctrine. “Neither of these work very well,” says New York attorney Joel Schoenfeld.
And even if a campaign has secured copyright permission, an artist can still object to their music’s use under other laws that protect their images or forbid implications of endorsement. How to get around this one? “I tell campaigns that the best way to go is to ask the artist,” says Andrew Stroud, a Sacramento attorney who has represented both musicians and political campaigns.
That works best if the musician’s political leanings line up with the candidate’s, which pretty much means 2016 GOP candidates better find a Ted Nugent song they like. (Hillary Clinton has the early lock on poppy earworms like Pharrell’s “Happy” and Katy Perry’s “Roar.”)
3. They want to get caught. It’s a cynical thought, but some might gamble that picking a fight is good for business. “It’s a way to get attention,” Stroud says. Some candidates might consider it a positive “if they’re in a fight with liberal Hollywood.”
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