The Rolling Stones won't get no satisfaction from Donald Trump

Donald Trump recently saw his musical options dwindle yet again, as The Rolling Stones joined Adele and Steven Tyler in requesting that he cease using their songs on his campaign trail.

The Stones will struggle to stop The Donald playing their songs on the campaign trail, says Pryor
The Stones will struggle to stop The Donald playing their songs on the campaign trail, says Pryor
Yet for those advising artists on their legal recourse for this type of unwanted artistic co-opting, the issue is much less straightforward than many would assume. 

While the artist might feel rightly aggrieved about the misappropriated connection between the art they created and the politician’s use of it, the law actually provides limited redress for this unauthorised endorsement – despite the potential reputational damage involved. 

So how was Trump able to use The Rolling Stones' music without their permission and what, if anything, can be done to manage the damage?

The central issue is that the staging of a political campaign event is not one that automatically demands consideration of music rights licensing. 

In most cases the chosen venue will have a vanilla public performance licence that permits music to be played through speakers. 

Cameras will be present, but they will be filming the campaign as a news event.
Playing music when the candidate comes on stage is therefore permitted by copyright licence. 

Typically politicians will not seek prior permission of artists, songwriters and labels when deciding which music to use – despite the fact music is very pointedly selected by the politician in question. 

Trump is one of a long line of politicians who have carefully chosen songs to portray an image or message to the public. 

The problem is that as soon as that politician walks on stage and the song is played, an association is born. 

No amount of injunctions, legal threats and cease and desists can turn back the clock and prevent this ‘musical endorsement’.

That is not to say that there is no remedy available. 

Where John McCain used the Jackson Browne song 'Running on Empty' in a campaign advertisement without permission, Browne, a lifelong Democrat, filed a lawsuit under US copyright law. 

The case was settled with payment of an undisclosed sum and a grovelling apology. However, as this was a professionally produced advertisement in a commercial slot, permission was explicitly needed.

A situation where a song is played in a venue and filmed by a news crew is not so easy to remedy.

However, some have still gone to exceptional lengths to seek redress for artists blindsided by politicians. 

Peter Paterno, a US music lawyer, took the unusual step of issuing an open letter to Senator Joe Walsh on behalf of his client, a guitarist in the Eagles. 

The letter poked fun at the Senator while reminding him of the various legal remedies available to the artist (the Senator had even changed the lyrics of the song in question). 

Some might say that this has a better deterrent effect than issuing proceedings. 

The reality for The Rolling Stones, in the days of social media immediacy, is that the pen is likely mightier than the legal sword. 

An acerbic tweet and some earthy press coverage about their disapproval may provide greater deterrent than a lawsuit. 

However, in the case of The Donald, the registration of disapproval has not yet proven to be an effective means of preventing his campaign. 

Gregor Pryor is head of entertainment and media at Reed Smith 

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