Neil Young message to Donald Trump: Stop rockin'

Donald Trump used 'Rockin’ in the Free World' at his campaign kickoff, prompting complaints from songwriter Neil Young. Mr. Trump is just the latest political candidate to clash with a musician about song rights and intentions.

Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a rally, Tuesday, June 16, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa. Shortly after announcing his candidacy, Mr. Trump received a complaint from musician Neil Young for his campaign's use of the song 'Rockin' in the Free World.'

Less than a day after launching his presidential campaign, Donald Trump may already be hitting the wrong notes.

Mr. Trump announced his candidacy Tuesday to the sound of Neil Young’s 1989 hit “Rockin’ in the Free World,” but Trump had no permission to use the song, said Elliot Roberts, Mr. Young’s manager. The incident makes the real estate tycoon the latest candidate to butt heads with a musician about song copyright in a campaign.

“Donald Trump was not authorized to use ‘Rockin’ in the Free World,’ ” Mr. Roberts said in a statement. “Neil Young, a Canadian citizen, is a supporter of [US senator and Democratic candidate] Bernie Sanders for president of the United States of America.”

A campaign spokesperson said that Trump, a fan of Young’s music despite their differing views, used the song legally through a licensing deal with the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), a performance rights group, Rolling Stone reported.

But ASCAP noted that in some cases, using a song for political purposes requires a campaign to reach out to the song’s publisher and the artist’s record label.

“The laws are complicated,” The Washington Post’s Emily Heil wrote. “It may be okay to use a song in one setting, like a convention center, but taboo in another. How much of the song they use also could be an issue.”

And even when a campaign does get copyright permission, artists can still object to the use of their music under other laws that protect their brand or image, or ban implications of endorsement.

In this, Trump joins a string of politicians whose unauthorized song use has led to awkward headlines and, in some cases, legal action.

Former president George W. Bush used Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” during public appearances for his 2000 campaign – until the musician’s publisher sent a cease and desist order that said the use of the song implied an endorsement that Mr. Petty would not give, Time reported.

In 2008, the rock duo Heart complained about the John McCain/Sarah Palin campaign’s use of their 1977 classic, “Barracuda,” telling Entertainment Weekly that the song was written as a “scathing rant against the soulless, corporate nature of the music business, particularly for women.… [T]here’s irony in Republican strategists’ choice to make use of it.”

During that same campaign, musician John Mellencamp asked Mr. McCain to stop using his songs, “Our Country” and “Pink House," instead joining Democratic candidate John Edwards at one of his rallies.

In 2011, Tom Petty again sent a cease and desist letter, this time to former Minnesota representative Michele Bachmann, for her use of his 1977 hit, “American Girl,” at a presidential campaign rally.

In their 2012 campaigns, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich also had to stop using “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor and “Wavin’ Flag” by Somali-Canadian musician K’naan after the artists raised copyright issues, The New York Times reported.  

The list goes on, and in most cases the musicians involved were as upset about the message their songs were made to send as about unlawful use.

“I got a flood of Twitter messages from people who assumed that it was all true, that I was now a supporter of Mitt Romney’s campaign,” K’naan told the Times. “I’m for immigrants. I’m for poor people, and they don’t seem to be what he’s endorsing. My song being his victory song didn’t seem quite right.”

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