Candidates You Hate Can Use Your Songs

As the election seasons ramps up, so do the inevitable cease and desist letters from music stars who don’t like the use of their songs by politicians at campaign events. The most recent dispute concerns Tom Petty’s objection to Michele Bachmann’s use of his song “American Girl.”

Look, I kind of like Petty and I really don’t like Bachmann, but that isn’t the point. I’ve sung this song before, during the last presidential campaign, so I’ll just repeat what I said then:

I understand celebrities who want to prevent John McCain from borrowing any of their cachet to run for president. I don’t support him either. But bogus IP claims harm overall public discourse by discouraging people from exercising their rights to draw on content legally when communicating their ideas. All of us lose out when that happens.

My friends Chris Sprigman and Siva Vaidhyanathan made a similar point at the time in a Washington Post op-ed. Assuming Bachmann’s campaign secured the appropriate blanket licenses from ASCAP or BMI (which is normal practice, and definitely applied to McCain last time around), then she can use almost any mainstream song at her events and there is no legal basis for a copyright claim.

By all means, if Tom Petty wants to use the opportunity to criticize Bachmann and disassociate himself from her views, that’s his right of free speech. And it also gives us an opportunity to ask whether Bachmann ever listened to the lyrics of that song. But leave copyright out of it.

2 Responses to “Candidates You Hate Can Use Your Songs”

  1. [...] facts of life from Bill McGeveran. This entry was posted in campaign finance. Bookmark the permalink. [...]

  2. Where’s the bogus IP claim? Perhaps it’s lodged somewhere in the C&D (the section that begins, “or else…”), but this story is not being reported as an IP right infringement. Judging from the Rolling Stone piece, Petty doesn’t want the impression purveyed that he endorses Bachmann. A follow-up story in RS (http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/michele-bachmann-defies-tom-pettys-cease-and-desist-20110629) pretty much echoes your analysis: “Many legal experts feel that if the campaign buys a license from ASCAP they are allowed to play any song they want without seeking approval from the artist. Others argue that the use of a song at a campaign rally implies that the artist endorses the politician, and thus they must seek approval from the musician. The matter has yet to be tested before a judge, but most politicians stop the moment that an artist complains.”