On his HBO “Late Week Tonight” show Sunday, John Oliver did this bit about politicians who use songs without the permission of people who created them. He cited Trump being introduced at the Republican National Convention to Queen’s “We Are The Champions,” the DNC’s past use of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors,” and several others. He even went back to Ronald Reagan’s misuse of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” thinking it was a patriotic anthem when it was actually a scathing commentary on the effect the Vietnam War had on veterans.
Oliver’s bit ended with a parody, “Don’t Use Our Songs,” sung by Usher, Michael Bolton, Cyndi Lauper, Josh Groban, John Mellencamp, Ann and Nancy Wilson (Heart), Dan Reynolds (Imagine Dragons), and Sheryl Crow. In it, they sing about how their songs shouldn’t be used without their permission, but if they are used, the artists deserve to be paid a licensing fee.
Here’s the problem — they are paid. When Trump used those songs, it was at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, where lots of music is performed during the year. Therefore, the arena must have a blanket license from BMI and ASCAP, the two organizations that represent music publishers and artists — and any songs played in that venue, at the GOP convention or any other event, would be covered by that license. Those fees are supposed to trickle down to the people who created the music through some complex formula that probably apportions the money incorrectly, but that’s another argument for another day.
That blanket license is what allowed Bruce Springsteen to cover a David Bowie song after the latter’s death without paying anything to Bowie’s estate. Or for you to try singing “I Will Always Love You” like Whitney Houston at a karaoke night. Or a local band to do their cover version of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” in a bar. Or a DJ to play hours of dance music in a club that overcharges for bottle service.
It even applies to a Gap outlet that’s playing a local radio station through the store’s speakers. Or a Chipotle doing the same from a Sirius XM channel. All of those venues are covered by these licenses — or, if they’re not, they’re likely to get a visit from a representative of BMI/ASCAP who randomly drops in to enforce them.
The way politicians get in trouble is when they use music in a venue that’s not licensed, such as an outdoor rally in a park. In that case, they should pay up or get permission. But as long as there’s a current license, the artist/publisher/singer/songwriter can scream all they want about it on social media, but they have no legal recourse to stop anyone from using their tunes.