Rockin’ in the Free(booting) World: Neil Young v. Trump for America

Recent reports that Neil Young is no longer asking or insisting that the Trump campaign stop using his music, but is instead suing Trump for America for copyright infringement, highlights the extent to which this longstanding controversy between artists and politicians has heated up in recent years. It is a subject that overlapped recently in the Senate IP Subcommittee hearing on the DMCA and fair use.

It is too early to say whether Young’s infringement complaints against the Trump campaign have legal merit because this will depend on facts we do not yet know for certain. For instance, when a candidate (or anyone) publicly performs recorded music, this is typically covered by performance rights licenses that are either paid by the venue(s), the party(ies) using the music, or both. These licenses are compulsory, meaning the copyright owners cannot refuse them as long as the users are in compliance.

But if a political campaign uses music in a commercial, or even uploads video to the web that was captured at a live event (e.g. the candidate waving at the crowd while a specific song plays), that requires a whole other license, and one that is not compulsory. Further, if a candidate uses a song in such a manner that it begins to acquire the feel of campaign theme music (e.g. “Don’t Stop” and Clinton), the creator(s), if they do not wish to endorse the campaign, can sue under the Lanham Act for infringement of their right of publicity. As yet, Young has not asserted his publicity right, and it remains to be seen what will be discovered vis-à-vis his copyright claims against Trump’s use of the songs “Rockin’ in the Free World” and “Devil’s Sidewalk.”

Of course, none of the legal technicalities quite get to the heart of the matter for musical artists. After the Trump rally (flame-out?) in Tulsa, the Rolling Stones and the Estate of Tom Petty also demanded the campaign stop using their music, with the Stones at least threatening to file suit. And even though the performance rights licenses technically cover campaigns in most cases, there is something to be said for the fact that the original purpose of those licenses was primarily to cover entertainment music as a medley of tracks played at a public event or at a restaurant or bar—or a venue like an open mic where guest musicians might perform a variety of cover songs.

All those uses are clearly different from a scripted moment at a campaign event, when a political operative intentionally plays a song on cue, with the purpose of galvanizing the crowd or emphasizing a particular theme or attitude—and usually based entirely on the chorus. On that note, it is germane to this topic that the only way to harmonize Trump’s idea of American exceptionalism with Neil Young’s verses about junkies and children suffering in the streets is if those dark images represent a kind of mission accomplished statement by Trump and his acolytes.

More likely, Trumps use of “Rockin’” is a classic case of political figures (or corporate users) playing a song solely for its chorus while ignoring the verses. Only in this instance, it happens to be profoundly Trumpian to completely miss the fact that Young is being sardonic, saying that the free world ain’t exactly rockin’. More bizarrely, Young takes direct aim at the “kinder gentler” rhetoric of George H. W. Bush in 1989, which was, in reality, both kinder and gentler than the raw mean-spiritedness and blatant ignorance of the Trump administration. Of course Neil Young doesn’t want his song prominently associated with Trump’s message. And, it turns out, neither do a lot of popular musical artists.

As discussed in this post about Mike Huckabee being sued for using the song “Eye of the Tiger” (which his campaign settled for $25,000), when orchestrated political theater appropriates a musical expression to incorporate into a given message, this does bridge the artist with the politician. In copyright terms (although there is no such license), one can almost think of these moments as “live synch” events. And invariably, these moments are now all captured on video and uploaded by a campaign to their social pages, where they become literal “synch” events that require the aforementioned non-compulsory license.

Given the fact that the compulsory performing rights license was the result of the DOJ finding both ASCAP and the NAB guilty of anti-trust practices back when radio was new, it is little wonder many music creators want to reform or abolish the compulsory license regime. And if there were ever a serious conversation about such reform, it should naturally influence the evolving dialogue about the use of works by political speakers in the digital age. Copyright is not exclusively about compensation; it can also about preserving the integrity of expression and proscribing the misuse of an expression to make statements anathema to the artist’s vision.

That should not be confused with a fair use that an artist may despise, either because the use is critical, parodic, or transformative in some way that the original creator finds personally offensive. Political uses of works, like those at issue for Young, do not generally fall into these types of fair use considerations.

In my post about the fourth DMCA hearing before the Senate IP Subcommittee, I mentioned that attorney Matthew Sanderson called political use of works “paradigmatic fair uses.” But notwithstanding the limitations of congressional testimony, I would argue that was too broad a statement by some margin. Just because political speech is paradigmatically protected speech under the First Amendment, that principle does not make political use more amenable to a finding of fair use. Under factor one of the fair use test, the purpose and character of the use, a political campaign should not (and very likely would not) be afforded any more deference than a news commentator, a critic, or a creator adding new expression to the original work.

In fact, I would go a step further and say that political campaigns have less in common with exemplary fair uses and are more comparable to ordinary marketing and advertising of goods and services. That is, after all, what a political campaign is:  marketing a candidate. And advertising is almost wholly incompatible with fair use, as it is arguably the paradigmatic forum requiring licenses to use creative works. Add to this the fact that there are rules prohibiting misrepresentation in advertising a can of paint and no rules requiring a politician to tell the truth, and of course copyright owners are going to bristle at unlicensed uses of their expressions in political messaging.

So, if it turns out that Trump for America lacks the relevant licensing at issue in Young’s lawsuit, the campaign would (and should) have a hell of a time trying to present a fair use defense. Huckabee attempted to do so in the above-mentioned example by claiming that his playing  “Eye of the Tiger” at a rally for Kim Davis,* was for a purely religious rally (for which there is a fair use exemption) that was not part of his campaign. But the fact that Huckabee for America settled for twenty-five grand suggests that his legal counsel did not see a viable path forward in Huckabee’s sudden appetite for the separation of church and state.  

If I interpret the nature of Young’s complaint correctly, it is similar to the Huckabee example—that “Rockin’” in particular was not just played as background music but was prominently and repeatedly performed such that Young’s voice has been too-often used to speak for Trump. In the end, copyright litigation may or may not offer the remedy the singer/songwriter seeks, but it should be clear that the use of creative works in political messaging can very easily cross the line to become coerced speech. So, whatever the best remedy might be, any defender of the speech right and authors’ rights should agree that a remedy is needed. 


*Davis was the Carter County, KY clerk who was jailed for refusing, in contravention of the law, to provide a marriage license to a same-sex couple. Huckabee staged a support rally for her outside the Grayson, KY detention center on the day of her release.

© 2020, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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