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News / Song Sleuth / 09 Nov 2022

The Party’s Over: What can artists do about politicians using their music?

5 minute read

It’s not uncommon for artists to criticise politicians for using their music without permission, however, is there anything artists can do?

The unauthorised use of music in political campaigns is widespread and fairly common in various countries, no matter how frequently artists voice their disapproval. Musicians have long railed against politicians who use their music without their permission. But what can artists do in these cases and is there a clause in copyright law that can stop future transgressions?

UK & US law

You’ve probably already heard your favourite song being played in a bar, supermarket, or other public places. This is possible because PPR (Public Performance Rights) are licensed by a Collective Management Organization, or CMO, enabling their affiliated rights holders to gather their respective royalties. 

In the United States, the most prominent CMOs are ASCAP and BMI, meaning that when a venue has PPR licensed by one of these, it has the rightful authorisation to play recorded music from the artists on that CMO catalogue. In the United Kingdom, the same is expected to happen when PPR are licensed by PPL PRS Limited

For political campaign purposes, in the US, ASCAP and BMI offer specific licenses enabling campaigns to play music throughout the different venues they visit. In the case of the UK, the license fee depends on its usage. According to CITMA, the PPR fee covers the “public use of sound recordings solely as background music during an election campaign by a single candidate”. While ASCAP recommends campaigns contact the artists’ management teams, PPL requires written permission from the record companies involved. Nonetheless, direct contact with the artist is never required. 

Whilst under UK law, there is no specific copyright infringement when an artist’s music is used in a political context, the artistic community has put sufficient pressure on CMOs to open some practical exclusions – such as prior label authorisation. Other exclusions may happen when it implies that the artist endorses the political candidate, or when it is closely connected to any political announcement. 

According to ASCAP, in the US the artist can only be compensated when at least one of the three exceptions below are observed:

  1. When the song usage is proven to damage a famous person or artist’s image – Right of Publicity;
  2. When the song usage is proven to create confusion or delusion of a trademark with its unauthorized use – Lanham Act;
  3. When the song usage is proven to imply the artist’s endorsement of the candidate – False Endorsement.

Nevertheless, it is important to mention that it requires large financial and PR efforts on the artist’s part to prove copyright infringement.

M People criticises Liz Truss

Mike Pickering, founder of M People, an English group that found success in the 90s with hits such as “One Night in Heaven” and “Open Your Heart”, resorted to Twitter to condemn the usage of  “Moving On Up” at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham earlier this month. The dance hit played as the short-lived Prime Minister at the time Liz Truss entered the stage to deliver her keynote speech on the final day of the conference.

Source: Mike Pickering Twitter

According to Rolling Stone magazine, Pickering only found out after receiving a raft of messages on the morning of the incident. “I’ve already tried to get a cease and desist against them, but my lawyer says it isn’t possible,” Pickering told Rolling Stone

He extended his criticism by accusing the party of not asking for the band’s consent to use the song and accusing them of their poor politics. “They’re all lying freaks in my opinion”, he said to the magazine.

The Tories have done it before

A similar instance took place on 6th October 2021, when the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson used Friendly Fires’ song “Blue Cassette” at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. Back then, the band used Instagram Stories to condemn their music usage: “We do not endorse the Conservative party’s use of our track ‘Blue Cassette”.  Just as with M People, Friendly Fires were not consulted by the Conservative Party before their music usage.

According to The Independent, many other politicians have previously been criticised for using music for political purposes. For example, when Theresa May used the Florence + Machine’s cover “You Got The Love”, Florence Welch tweeted “Today’s use of You’ve Got The Love at the Conservative party conference was not approved by us nor would it have been having they asked”. 

The last United States President, Donald Trump, has been probably one of the most flagrant examples of artistic dissatisfaction with unauthorised music usage in US politics. According to Lexology, even after Neil Young issued an official statement condemning the use of “Rockin’ in the Free World” on Trump’s announcement of his run for the presidency, back in 2015, the ex-president continued to use the song on his campaigns.

In the Friendly Fires case, the legal battle determined that indeed the Conservative Party had to pay an undisclosed amount for the copyright infringement. Even though the same has happened with worse consequences nearly one year prior to the M People case, the Conservatives seem to have not yet learned their lesson, as they find themselves in the same situation. 

Did you find this article interesting? If you’re curious to know more about the ins and outs of music rights,  check out the articles on Song Sleuth’s blog.

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