Thursday, January 26, 2012

The 2012 Election: The Soundtrack

With Minnesota caucuses only a couple of weeks away (February 7), it’s time to prepare (brace yourself) for the onslaught of political campaign commercials. Although I admit to being a bit of a political junkie, I really hate the commercials. The unabashed laudatory sound bites and unchallenged claims add nothing to the political discussion, and this year the added vitriol of the super PAC ads make my stomach churn. But I have found one thing of interest:  The music choices. Not just for the video material, but also for the personal appearances of candidates. 

In prior years, poor John McCain was challenged by John Mellencamp for using his songs “Our Country” and “Pink Houses” and by The Foo Fighters for using “My Hero.” Heart protested the use of its song “Barracuda” after speeches by McCain’s running mate Sarah Palin.

Mellencamp openly objected for political reasons (both songs were intended to convey a strong pro-labor message), and informally requested that McCain refrain from the use of these songs. McCain agreed, thereby avoiding an ugly public battle. Heart and The Foo Fighters also objected for political reasons, and the matters were resolved without conflict.

Others—such as the rock band Rush, which objected to Rand Paul’s use of some of their songs in his senate race in Kentucky—objected on the basis that the use of their songs was a violation of  their intellectual property rights.

Copyright law gives the author the exclusive right, among other things, to reproduce the musical composition and to publicly perform the work. But music is complicated. While individual artists may own copyrights in the music and lyrics, record companies generally own the copyright in the recordings. Such recordings are typically licensed through performance rights organizations such as ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC.

My guess is that most of the campaigns (including the McCain and Rand Paul organizations) had the appropriate licenses, and the musicians had no legal basis to object to the use of their music at public events and rallies. Use in an advertisement may be different, however, as that may require a synchronization license that can require a license from the song writer or possibly a music publishing company. 

So what do I take away from the choice of music in political ads and at political events? It’s this: Music used in ads and at personal appearances is probably with the consent of the musician (or at least without the musician’s objection), for both legal reasons (in connection with the commercials) and political reasons (in connection with political events). But given the complexity of music licensing, I wouldn’t bet that I’m right in any given case.

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