Political Campaigns & Unauthorized Music

January 18, 2016
Post by Brandon W. Clark

As the presidential caucuses approach so do the opportunities for political candidates to end up in the headlines for using unauthorized music in their campaigns. In nearly every campaign cycle you hear about a recording artist upset that a politician or campaign used the artist's music without authorization. A list of notable disputes include Bruce Springsteen vs. Ronald Reagan, Sting vs. George W. Bush, Survivor vs. Mike Huckabee, Sam Moore vs. Barack Obama, Jackson Browne vs. John McCain, Heart vs. Sarah Palin, Rush vs. Rand Paul, R.E.M. vs. Donald Trump, and the list goes on and on. Here's what politicians need to know to avoid the negative publicity associated with using unauthorized music in their campaigns.

First, using a copyrighted song without a license is infringement, even if it's for a non-commercial/political reason. Generally, songs have many copyright owners (writers, musicians, record label, music publisher, etc.) and that means you may need several licenses. The kind of licenses needed depends on how the music will be used.

In nearly every instance, you will need a license from the copyright owner of the composition, which includes the underlying music, melodies, and lyrics of the song. This license is usually obtained from the publishing company and in some situations the use of the song may be covered by a blanket license with a performing rights organization such as American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI), or Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (SESAC). If you are playing a recording produced by the recording artist, you will also need a license from the copyright owner of the recording. This is called a "Master License"and is usually obtained from the record label.

Depending on the specific use of the song, copyright law isn't the only relevant area of law. While a campaign could be in compliance with copyright law, it could potentially be in violation of other laws including the artist's "Right of Publicity‚¬, which may provide image protection for famous people or artists, the "Lanham Act‚¬, which prevents the confusion or dilution of a trademark (such as a band or artist name) through an unauthorized use, and/or "False Endorsement"where use of an artist's work implies that the artist supports a product or candidate.

In most cases the more closely a song is tied to the "image"or message of the campaign, the more likely it is that a recording artist or songwriter of the song could object to the song's usage in the campaign. This can be a complex area of law so it's best to contact the artist's management to obtain permission directly before using an artist's music. The artist's manager will also be able to direct you to the relevant copyright owners in order to secure the required licenses.

For additional information ASCAP and the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) have prepared guidelines for using music in political campaigns.

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