Campaign Hitmen: Why Politicos Still Get in Trouble for Carrying a Tune

Here’s my latest story for print Variety, an expanded and updated version of a previous post.

Michele Bachmann’s rise in the presidential polls may be unexpected, but her campaign’s being asked to stop playing “American Girl” by songwriter Tom Petty comes as no surprise.

Almost like clockwork each election cycle, politicians get into trouble for unauthorized use of music, which speaks to the power of classic hits to drive home a message.

Bill Clinton had Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)” and John Kennedy enlisted Frank Sinatra to croon a customized “High Hopes,” but the trouble starts when a candidate adopts a work without first telling the songwriter or recording artist.

The much-publicized Bachmann incident is not the first time that a campaign has run afoul of public performance copyrights, and it wasn’t even the first time that Petty has tried to put a stop to it. He balked at George W. Bush’s use of “I Won’t Back Down” at campaign events in 2000.

Steve-perry In a business where star artists lean to the left, Republicans complain that they are being singled out while Democrats rarely get angry letters threatening legal action. There is some truth to it.

That’s because artists are not just concerned about copyright law, but false endorsement, or the impression that voters may have that a politician has received permission by a songwriter or a singer, and therefore support their political stances.

Petty’s manager, Tony Dimitriades, declines to elaborate on the incident.

“The only thing I can tell you is they are not playing it anymore,” he says.

Hillary Clinton also used the song in her presidential bid, but “she requested and got permission,” he adds.

While campaigns often do have copyright permission to use music in certain venues with a blanket ASCAP or BMI license, the stakes get even higher when a song is used in a commercial or Web video without permission.

In 2008, Jackson Browne, a supporter of then-candidate Barack Obama, sued John McCain for using “Running on Empty” in a campaign ad.

As it turned out, the spot was run by the Ohio Republican Party, but the suit ended in what sources said was a six-figure settlement with the Republican National Committee, along with a public apology.

Last year, Don Henley won a judgment against Chuck DeVore, a candidate for U.S. Senate in California, for using a takeoff of “Boys of Summer” and “All She Wants to Do Is Dance” in campaign Web videos. DeVore had defended the videos as a parody, and therefore a fair use of a copyrighted work. But a federal judge didn’t buy it.

S-CHARLIE-CRIST-BYRNE-COPYRIGHT-LAWSUIT-large Earlier this year, David Byrne reached a settlement with former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist after he used “Road to Nowhere” in an advertisement during his campaign for governor. The settlement amount was undisclosed, but part it included a videotaped apology from Crist that had the feel of a hostage reading off a captors’ statement at gunpoint.

Democrats do run afoul of artists — albeit with less of a public blowout. Obama used “Hold on, I’m Comin'” in 2008 campaign events until Sam Moore of the duo Sam & Dave, who recorded the song, requested that he stop.

Given the potential for embarrassment from a campaign, why does it keep on happening?

“They just think music is free like a lot of other people on the planet (do),” says Lee Phillips, senior partner at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, who represents a number of music clients. A solution, obviously, is to ask for permission, but for many campaigns it’s a better risk to use the song and just see what happens than have an artist simply say no.

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