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On August 14, singer-songwriter Jackson Browne filed suit against John McCain and the Ohio and national Republican committees for using his song “Running on Empty” without his permission. The Ohio Republican Party used the song in a campaign ad that makes fun of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s suggestion that U.S. drivers could save gasoline by simply getting regular tune-ups and making sure they have properly inflated tires. Browne claims that the use of his song constitutes copyright infringement and incorrectly implies that Browne, a lifelong liberal and Democratic supporter, endorses McCain. A spokesman for the McCain campaign stated that the Ohio Republican Party was behind the ad and that McCain had nothing to do with it. Later, the Ohio Republican Party pulled the ad from the Internet in response to a cease-and-desist demand from Browne.
Browne is not the only musician that the McCain campaign has recently crossed. McCain also offended the band Van Halen by using its song “Right Now” in Ohio on August 29 when he announced that Alaska Governor Sarah Palin would be his running mate. The band issued a statement asserting that the campaign did not ask for its permission to use the song and that it would not have granted permission had it been sought.
Copyright laws are ambiguous regarding this type of “campaign” use. Political campaigns maintain that in order to play a song at a live event they only need a public performance license from a performing rights organization such as BMI, ASCAP, or SESAC. These organizations pay royalties to songwriters and publishers for performances of their songs at live events.
Other musicians are more accepting of their song’s unauthorized use in the political arena, even when a candidate who the artist does not necessarily support uses one of their songs. For example, Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver ended with “Only in America” sung by Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn, who are both Republicans. Ironically, President Bush used the same song at the Republican National Convention during his 2004 re-election campaign. Although Brooks and Dunn’s record label had not received notice that the song would be used at the Democratic National Convention, Brooks said it was “flattering to know our song crossed parties and potentially inspires all Americans.”
Regardless of how the relevant copyright laws apply to this issue, asking for permission to use a song during any part of a political campaign might be a good idea simply as a matter of courtesy. From a campaign’s perspective, an artist’s complaints may result in bad publicity, even if the artist never files suit.
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