Do I need permission to play a song at a public event or venue?
Generally, most songs are copyrighted works and therefore, a license is required for the public performance of the copyrighted work. This license can be obtained from a “PRO”, which legally allows the copyrighted work to be played at public events or venues.
What is a Performance Rights Organization or “PRO”?
Most musicians assign the rights to their music to Performance Rights Organizations (“PRO”). A “PRO” is an organization that collects royalties on behalf of songwriters and publishers. Essentially, anytime an artist’s song is played for the public such as in a venue, television, or radio, the rights holder is entitled to a payment of royalties. The “PRO” owns the rights to collect publishing royalties on behalf of composers, songwriters, and publishers, and pay them from the funds they collect.
Business and other entities pay a fee to PRO’s in order to obtain public performance rights and use the music owned by any of the publisher’s or songwriters they represent. If you use the music licensed by a PRO without obtaining a license, you may be liable for copyright infringement. Some of the most prominent PRO’s are ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC.
Can Artists stop their songs from being played at political events?
Ultimately, this depends on whether or not the appropriate license from a performance rights organization to play the song at the public event has been obtained. The most common license that is obtained is a general “Public Performance License” which allows the licensee to play any songs at a public event or venue. However, some organizations such as BMI and ASCAP have created extra steps to protect the rights of their publishers and songwriters by creating a separate license for “Political Entities and Organizations”. For Example, BMI’s “Political Entities and Organizations” license allows the organization who obtains it to use any of the songs in BMI’s portfolio during their events. However, BMI has created a specific provision which allows artists to selectively exclude songs from this license.
This provision is the source of the ongoing conflict between the Rolling Stones and the Trump campaign. In late June, a dispute between President Trump and the Rolling Stones made headlines when the Stones claimed to take legal action against the Trump campaign because their 1968 record “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was being played during campaign rallies. The Trump campaign had acquired BMI’s “Political Entities and Organizations” license which legally allows them to play any of the 15 million songs in BMI’s portfolio during their events. However, according to BMI, the Rolling Stones have elected to use the provision in the “Political Entities and Organizations” license excluding their music from being played at political events. As such, BMI and the Rolling Stones are claiming that the Trump Campaign is in breach of their license agreement. Some argue this may not be enforceable because PRO’s like BMI and ASCAP have a legal obligation to make their songs available to the public.
Other legal arguments artists have made to have to stop the use of their music at political events are state level “right of publicity laws”, which prohibit the use of a person’s likeness without their consent. Similarly, others have argued “false impression of endorsement” under the Lanham Act, stating use of their song created a false impression of connection, approval or sponsorship of the political event.