When Politicians Steal Your Song

A few weeks ago, popular late-night television anchor John Oliver hosted a segment on Last Week Tonight which focussed on political campaigns that made unauthorized usage of copyrighted songs. Beginning the segment with a discussion on US presidential election candidate Donald Trump and his campaign’s use of Queen’s We Are The Champions and The Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want in the Republican National Convention, John Oliver talked about how politicians have been doing this for a long time.

Have other songs been appropriated during elections?

Back in 1984, Bruce Springsteen refused US President Reagan’s request to use the song Born In The USA as a part of his presidential campaign. In spite of the refusal, President Reagan would often make references to the song, ultimately resulting in Bruce Springsteen publicly denouncing his unauthorized references and usage of the song’s lyrics. Politicians Bob Dole and Pat Buchanan also went on to make unauthorized usage of the same song, only to stop when once again, Bruce Springsteen publicly objected to the misuse.

In 1988, US President George H.W. Bush made use of Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy without taking any permission from the singer and author of the song, only to drop it later after receiving an objection from the singer.

in 2012, Debbie Wasserman Schultz used Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors in an attack against candidate Mitt Romney at the Democratic National Convention; once again without the singer’s permission, which Cyndi Lauper announced publicly over Twitter. In 2015, The Dropkick Murphys tweeted, “…we literally hate you”, at Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, for his unauthorized use of their famous single I’m Shipping Up to Boston.

To be fair, appropriation of songs is not unique to US politics. In 2014, Eminem sued New Zealand Prime Minister John Key for copyright infringement over the usage of his song Lose Yourself in the minister’s re-election campaign.

What are the implications of this?

The unauthorized use of music in political campaigns has many repercussions. Here are two of the obvious ones.

Firstly, by playing a song as part of their political campaigns, politicians inadvertently (and sometimes not-so-inadvertently) imply endorsement or support from the author of the song (i.e., the artist or band). In an era where celebrities greatly influence public opinion, this can prove to be a very important factor in determining the engagement a political campaign has with a demographic that might encompass a majority of the artist’s fans. In addition to exerting influence, the unauthorized usage of the song can also misrepresent the political ideologies and aspirations of the artist — again, a potentially disturbing way to influence public opinion, and a gross violation of an individual’s freedom to express his or her own political opinions.

Secondly, there’s the overwhelming lack of respect that is displayed to creative professionals and industries everywhere. By advocating free speech, expression, and the right to livelihood, the undue appropriation of music by politicians clearly displays their disrespect to the artists and the business they work in. It’s tough to sell the need to respect artist’s rights when politicians — claiming to have their constituency’s best interests at heart — do not pay heed to the simple acts of obtaining permission or paying royalties.

Is music the only creative work appropriated by politicians?

Towards the end of 2014, US-based photographer Bimal Nepal accused Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s social media team of plagiarism. The picture in question was allegedly adapted and modified to be used in the prime minister’s Diwali message. Bimal Nepal and a US-based law firm sent a letter of notice to the prime minister’s office, to receive the response that the picture was available for free download on several sites, and could not attract infringement claims by Bimal Nepal since it had been used for non-commercial purposes.

The famous ‘Obey’ poster from US President Obama’s political campaign was at the centre of copyright infringement allegations when its artist, Shepard Fairey, was accused of having made an unauthorized derivative work based on a picture of President Obama, the rights over which were held by the Associated Press.

Most recently, Melania Trump (the wife of US presidential election candidate Donald Trump) was accused of having plagiarised portions of her speech from Michelle Obama. If one were to consider Michelle Obama’s speech a literary work, then once again we have an instance of blatant copying with no credit being awarded to the source.

What does all this mean for artists?

While politicians choose to debate over the current state of internet piracy or attempt to discuss policy issues relevant to intellectual property rights such as copyright and patents, it’s naïve for them to believe that their own indiscretions with respect to the unauthorized use of other people’s artistic and copyrightable works will go unnoticed. The simple truth remains that the plight of artist rights and the professional standards for content creators in general will not see much change until those who profess to know what’s best for their country learn to play by the rules.

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