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Running On Empty? Jackson Browne Files Suit Against John McCain

Singer and songwriter Jackson Browne is not amused that his song "Running On Empty" has been used in a television commercial for John McCain and against Barack Obama.

Indeed, with a full litigation tank, Browne has filed a federal lawsuit in Los Angeles against McCain, the Republican National Committee (RNC) and the Ohio Republican Party (ORP), accusing them of copyright infringement, statutory violations, and violation of the right of publicity.

Browne seeks injunctive relief preventing the unauthorized use of his musical works, actual damages, statutory damages, and attorney's fees and costs.

Browne's complaint asserts that he has had a "legacy as an advocate for social and environmental justice" and that he has "closely associated himself with liberal causes and Democratic political candidates."

The complaint states that Browne filed the lawsuit "in order to vindicate an egregious, intentional false association" created by agents of John McCain by "suggesting that Browne sponsors and endorses McCain," which is "a false association that directly conflicts with the political and social values that Browne has espoused and supported throughout his career."

So, what exactly happened, according to Browne, that led to him bringing a federal lawsuit?

The complaint alleges that McCain, the RNC and the ORP recently released a television commercial "in which McCain mocks the suggestion" of Obama "that the country can conserve gasoline by keeping their automobile tires inflated to the proper pressure," and that during the commercial Browne's song "Running On Empty" plays in the background.

Browne alleges that the commercial creates the false impression that Browne sponsors, endorses or is associated with McCain, "when nothing could be further from the truth," and asserts that a license and permission never were obtained to use Browne's song for the commercial.

Browne's complaint goes on to allege that he "is not the first victim of McCain's creation of false endorsements and manifest lack of respect for the intellectual property rights accorded to musicians by the United States Constitution." As examples, the complaint then asserts that McCain and his agents have made unauthorized use of musical works by ABBA, John Mellencamp, and Frankie Valli.

The bottom line? It is not uncommon in Presidential campaigns in recent times for candidates to make attacks, suggesting that their opponents are elitist and cozy up to celebrities. If Jackson Browne is an example, not all celebrities (whether Democrat or Republican - in this instance, Democrat) are simply going to sit back and let the campaign process unfold without them making a peep, especially when their works are drawn into the process. And in fact when they feel truly compelled, they are willing to take matters into their own hands and go to court.

In the future, candidates would be smart to obtain permission from artists before using their works, and they are much more likely to gain permission from artists who actually support them. Had Jackson Brown been a Republican, he may have been willing to grant permission to McCain to use his song. On the flip-side, if a television commercial for Obama and against McCain were to use a song from an artist who supports McCain, we could see a lawsuit by that artist against the Obama camp.

Eric Sinrod is a partner in the San Francisco office of Duane Morris LLP where he focuses on litigation matters of various types, including information technology and intellectual property disputes. His Web site is and he can be reached at To receive a weekly email link to Mr. Sinrod's columns, please send an email to him with Subscribe in the Subject line.

This column is prepared and published for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author's law firm or its individual partners.


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