Trump vs. R.E.M.: Why do politicians keep using songs without permission?

Members of the rock band R.E.M. are protesting Donald Trump's use of 'It's the End of the World as We Know It' at a Republican rally this week.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump waves as he arrives at a Capitol Hill rally to 'Stop the Iran Nuclear Deal' in Washington, Sept. 9, 2015. Members of the rock band R.E.M. have since protested Mr. Trump's use of their song, 'It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)' at the event, saying the GOP candidate did not ask their permission.

Donald Trump has earned the ire of another musical act peeved at his use of their song for his purposes.

At a "Stop the Iran Deal" rally in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, Mr. Trump took the stage to the sounds of R.E.M.’s 1987 smash hit, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” – a move that band members Mike Mills and Michael Stipe condemned harshly on Twitter:

They later released a more diplomatic statement on their Facebook page: "While we do not authorize or condone the use of our music at this political event, and do ask that these candidates cease and desist from doing so, let us remember that there are things of greater importance at stake here."

The band is right that candidates' musical choices say little about the strength of their political positions, which matter most in a presidential race. Yet flouting copyright law seems unwise for anyone running for public office.

So why do politicians keep doing it?

One reason may be simple negligence. "Nine times out of 10, it's a young advance person who thinks it's a cool song to play when the guy's walking in and the candidate hasn't a clue what was playing," Joe Trippi, campaign manager for Howard Dean during the former Vermont governor’s 2004 presidential bid, told Rolling Stone.

Others chalk it up to arrogance.

Candidates "want to use music in order to associate [with] fans of the artists whose music they're using, and they think they can't get permission," said intellectual property lawyer Lawrence Iser to the magazine. "What's that expression? 'It's better to beg forgiveness than to ask [only] to get turned down.' "

Still others say politicians may be out for publicity. "It’s a way to get attention," Andrew Stroud, a Sacramento attorney who has represented both musicians and political campaigns, told The Washington Post. Some candidates consider it good for business to "fight with liberal Hollywood," he added.

Under copyright law, politicians can use any song they want in a political campaign as long as they either obtain a public performance license from a performing rights group such as the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), or restrict playing the song to venues that already have such a license.

But even if the campaign secures the appropriate license, artists can still object to or sue against the use of their song to protect their brand, legally known as their "right of publicity," which "prevents the unauthorized commercial use of an individual's name, likeness, or other recognizable aspects of their brand or image."

R.E.M.’s Mr. Stipe invoked that right when he asked Trump – and presumably Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who also spoke at the Iran deal rally – to refrain from using his voice and music for what he called their "charade of a campaign."

Survivor frontman Frankie Sullivan did the same on Tuesday, when he protested former Arkansas governor and GOP presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee’s use of "Eye of the Tiger" to celebrate the release of Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis from jail.

"NO! We did not grant Kim Davis any rights to use 'My Tune – The Eye Of The Tiger,' " Mr. Sullivan posted on Facebook.

Another legal issue is false endorsement. In June, musician Neil Young – a self-described libertarian – denounced Trump’s use of his 1989 hit "Rockin’ in the Free World" during Trump's campaign kickoff. Mr. Young’s manager, Elliot Roberts, noted in a statement that the musician is a supporter of US senator and Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders.

"Donald Trump was not authorized to use 'Rockin’ in the Free World,' " Mr. Roberts said.

Other artists who have recently protested the political use of their music include Tom Petty, John Mellencamp, the rock duo Heart, and the Dropkick Murphys.

The best way to stay out of trouble? "Ask the artist,” Mr. Stroud advised.

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