What To Do When A Campaign Uses Your Recorded Music Without Permission

Trump plays Neil Young and R.E.M., and then Kim Davis & Mike Huckabee play Survivor–all without permission from the artists or rights holders. Will politicians ever learn to ask first? Probably not. So here’s what artists can do.


How much recourse you have over unwanted use of your music can vary widely based on how it’s used and where.

If a campaign or organization that you oppose uses your song at a campaign event—an announcement, a rally, a fundraiser, etc:

Anytime a campaign plays a song at a rally, they must ensure that they have a public performance license covering the song’s use. Most major public venues such as convention centers and arenas typically purchase blanket licenses from performance rights organizations (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC) allowing campaigns to “publicly perform” any song in their repertoire, which includes the vast majority of compositions. These licenses may not cover all uses, so most national campaigns also purchase their own blanket licenses covering all campaign events; so if they have a whistlestop event on the campaign trail at a factory or in a park, they’d still be covered.

• If the campaign does not have such a license, you can contact the campaign, or have the PRO contact the campaign, and demand that they stop using your song.

• Even if the campaign does have a proper license to play your song at the campaign’s events, you may still be able to assert a legal claim that use of your name infringes your right of privacy/publicity; infringes or dilute trademark rights that you or your band may have in the band’s name or your name; or falsely implies that you have endorsed the candidate.  Contact your agent or attorney about making these claims if the PRO says the campaign appears to have a proper license and you still want to shut down the campaign’s use of your song.

If a campaign or organization (SuperPAC, nonprofit, etc.) that you oppose is using your music in a tv or radio commercial or an online video:

• If it’s your song and your recording of it, the campaign would likely need a synch license from your PRO and a master recording license from your label. Check both. If the campaign doesn’t have these licenses, you can have either the PRO or label or both contact the campaign and demand that they cease and desist from using your music.

• If it’s a cover of your song, the campaign still needs a synch license from the PRO—so  if the campaign didn’t have a license, have the PRO contact the campaign and make the same demand.

• If it’s your cover of someone else’s song, the record label can make that demand.

• If it’s your song, and it’s on a campaign or organization’s website, that campaign or organization also needs a performance license from the PRO—so if they don’t have it, the PRO can demand that the campaign or website stop showing the video or playing the recording.

Making a statement in media

Legal representation is expensive, and whether on copyright infringement or other grounds, these sorts of cases rarely make it to court. A less expensive and potentially more effective tactic for musicians is to release a simple statement to news media and/or music press disagreeing with the use of your work. A good example of this was Neil Young’s management’s response to Donald Trump’s use of “Rockin’ In The Free World.”

“Donald Trump was not authorized to use “Rockin’ In The Free World” in his presidential candidacy announcement. Neil Young, a Canadian citizen, is a supporter of Bernie Sanders for President of the United States of America.”

It can be as simple as that to send a clear message. Usually campaigns will cease use of your work to avoid further embarrassment.


If you get advance notice that a campaign will be using your musical work as part of a campaign, you should make sure that all rightsholders and partners you work with including labels, distributors, and publishers are aware of your support of the candidate and have cleared the work to be used. You don’t want your record label reflexively having your video taken down from YouTube because they don’t know permission was arranged, for example.  Additionally, if the campaign is a smaller/local race where the candidate hasn’t purchased a blanket license, you will want to contact your PRO and let them know that you’ve granted permission and waive your public performance royalties for that use.