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Can Musicians Get Politicians to Stop Playing Their Songs?

TULSA, OKLAHOMA - JUNE 20: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at  a campaign rally at the BOK Center, June 20, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Trump is holding his first political rally since the start of the coronavirus pandemic at the BOK Center today while infection rates in the state of Oklahoma continue to rise. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
By Ashley Ravid | Last updated on

Even though an artist may be the voice of a song, they rarely have full control over where and when their music can be played. President Donald Trump has been warned on multiple occasions by musicians that they want him to stop using their music at rallies or in videos. But do they have the legal right to demand he stop?

The writers of a song automatically receive copyright for their original creation. U.S. copyright statutes prohibit the dissemination of copyrighted work online without permission — so if Trump uses a song in a video without approval, the copyright holders can file for a copyright violation.

This happened in 2019 when the president tweeted an edited video which included parts of the song and video for the band Nickelback's song "Photograph." The band hit back through legal channels, and the video was quickly taken down. Why, then, do artists face additional difficulty in keeping their music out of political rallies?

Licensing Rights

Political campaigns typically purchase the rights to play music in public for their events. These licenses grant broad access to thousands of songs which a politician can then use at rallies, conventions, and more, so long as the music isn't used digitally without permission.

That means that if an artist's song is part of the licensing agreement and is played at a campaign event without their desire, they have traditionally had little legal recourse outside of sending a cease and desist letter.

Musicians that have attempted to get Trump to stop playing their music this way include, but are not limited to:

  • The Rolling Stones
  • Pharrell Williams
  • Panic! at the Disco

When All Else Fails, Lawyer Up

Artists like Neil Young who have complained about politicians using their music have been frustrated that their requests are denied. More aggressive legal action may be key to ensuring that politicians comply with artist's request for their music not to be played at political events.

Steven Tyler's lawyer was successful in getting Trump events to agree to stop using Aerosmith's music by invoking the Lanham Act, which grants copyright holders some protection against uses of their work that give false impressions. Tyler's lawyer argued that the use of her client's music at Trump rallies gave consumers the impression that Tyler supported Trump, and the rights to the song were restricted and then subsequently lost by Trump. Representatives for Rihanna used similar methods to also prevent Trump from using her music.

Though results aren't guaranteed, and musicians certainly don't have the inherent right to keep politicians from using their music, it can be done. As further litigation on the subject develops, more and more politicians may find themselves learning that You Can't Always Get What You Want.

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