A while back a friend told me that the Republican Governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, was using the Talking Heads song “Road to Nowhere” in a campaign ad. He’s running for Senate.
Well, using a recording of a song, or even just using that song and not the original recording, in an advertisement without permission is illegal, unless the composition has gone into the public domain. It’s not just illegal because one is supposed to pay for such use and not paying is, well, theft — it’s also illegal because one has to ask permission, and that permission can be turned down.
Besides being theft, use of the song and my voice in a campaign ad implies that I, as writer and singer of the song, might have granted Crist permission to use it, and that I therefore endorse him and/or the Republican Party, of which he was a member until very, very recently. The general public might also think I simply license the use of my songs to anyone who will pay the going rate, but that’s not true either, as I have never licensed a song for use in an ad. I do license songs to commercial films and TV shows (if they pay the going rate), and to dance companies and student filmmakers mostly for free. But not to ads.
I’m a bit of a throwback that way, as I still believe songs occasionally mean something to people — they obviously mean something personal to the writer, and often to the listener as well. A personal and social meaning is diluted when that same song is used to sell a product (or a politician). If Crist and his campaign folks had asked to use the song, I would have said no — even if they had offered a lot of money, such as I have been offered in the past for ad use (though I’ve always turned these offers down).
I believe my audience is aware of this no-ad use policy of mine, and part of the respect I am accorded as an artist is due to my maintaining this policy. Needless to say, if they thought I’d licensed a song to a political campaign they might not respect me as much in the morning.
It might be pointed out that Republican campaign organizations have done this kind of thing before. John McCain’s campaign used the Jackson Browne song “Running on Empty” and Reagan’s folks used Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” Both were used illegally without permission, and in the case of the Jackson Browne song a lawsuit was brought. After the Republicans lost several motions attempting to dismiss Browne’s complaint, they settled with him. Part of the settlement said that the Republican National Committee promised to respect artists’ rights and to obtain licenses for the use of copyrighted works in the future. So, it’s not like they weren’t warned, or hadn’t been burned before.
Now, there is such a thing as fair use. Typically the type of free use that doesn’t require a permission might be a student quoting a passage in a book to make a point in a graduate paper, or someone using part (not all) of “Road to Nowhere” to identify, say, the marching groove in that song as a metaphor for the inexorable forward momentum of time, or some such notion. These uses are typically exempt from licensing, permission and fees. In this case, however, the use was not to comment on or explain something about “Road to Nowhere,” ’80s music in general, Talking Heads or Cajun accordion riffs — it was used solely to further Governor Crist’s advertising strategy in his Senate primary campaign… a campaign that has nothing to do with me or my music.
Another tactic the Republicans have used to justify this kind of thing is the right to political free speech. Their argument is that the song is integral to making a political point, and therefore falls under free speech. Well, that’s just crazy talk — the song has nothing to do with Crist’s political views. It simply has a title that is a handy catchphrase, as does the Jackson Browne song — but the content of the song itself doesn’t have any connection with the politician’s campaign or agenda.
So, my lawyers and I have filed a lawsuit — and we also hope the Republicans might not engage (again) in this kind of illegal behavior in the future.