by Dr Ewan Kirk, senior lecturer in Intellectual Property Law at Birmingham City University

Donald Trump is a figure in American politics who is not without controversy, however the latest controversy relates to copyright law. He used “We Are The Champions” at the Republican National Convention, a song written by rock group Queen in 1977. Queen guitarist Brian May denounced the song’s use by Trump, saying “I can confirm that permission was neither sought nor given,” with his objection being “it has always been against our policy to allow Queen music to be used as a political campaigning tool.” The Queen official Twitter account described it as “An unauthorised use at the Republican Convention against our wishes”.

Brian May’s objection to Donald Trump’s use of this song is one in a long line of examples of musicians complaining about political figures using their songs for political purposes. But it raises an interesting question about whether it is possible to control the use of music to ensure that it is only used for purposes that you agree with.

Music can be a powerful campaigning tool for politicians – D:Ream’s “Things Can Only Get Better” was famously used by the Labour Party when it won the 1997 UK General Election. It can send a powerful political message simply. But the cause being promoted by the music and the views of the songwriter do not necessarily align. Donald Trump has previously attracted anger from R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe for use of the band’s music, and there are many other examples. RollingStone.com lists 35 examples from US politics of musicians objecting to politicians’ use of their songs .

Copyright law is well known for giving control to authors of copyright works over their work. In the UK, s.16 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 reserves certain rights to be exercised by or with the permission of the copyright owner only; this includes the right to copy, distribute, play in public or adapt the work. At first glance it therefore means that as one of the copyright owners, Brian May would be well within his rights to object if permission to use the song has not been given.

However, the issue may not be as simple as this, and it therefore raises the point regarding the extent to which a copyright owner can exercise this level of control over their work. The majority of music from bands such as Queen is covered by collecting society agreements. These agreements give the collecting societies the right to give permission on behalf of the copyright owner for others to use copyright works covered by the agreement.

If individual permission had to be sought for each piece of music used at an event or on a TV programme from the owner of the copyright, this would make the process of clearing rights for such purposes extremely time-consuming and complicated. Collecting societies such as the Performing Rights Society (PRS) in the UK and Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) in the US operate to ensure efficient processing of permissions to use music. It is also extremely convenient for copyright owners, because it means royalties for their work is collected on their behalf in a wide range of situations without them needing to be involved.

This convenience comes at a price though. To use BMI as an example, they are required to be non-partisan in their licensing of music for use at events. This means that the copyright owner, in joining the collecting society, has agreed to give permission for use of their song to whoever requests it. They cannot put specific provisos on its use dependent upon whether they agree with the event or the organisation behind the event.

Therefore, as long as the appropriate BMI license has been obtained by the Republican National Convention, then they will have had the permission to use the song, regardless of the views of the owner of the copyright in that song. Public statements such as those from Brian May or Michael Stipe are usually more about publicly distancing themselves from the views of those using their music than a serious attempt to invoke their rights under copyright law.

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