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Devil’s Sidewalk leads to court

MUSICIANS are getting increasingly annoyed with politicians using their songs at rallies. Now, as widely reported, Neil Young has announced a lawsuit against the Donald Trump campaign for using his works "Rockin' in the Free World" and "Devil's Sidewalk" for years, including at the notorious pro-covid-19 gathering in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on 20 June.

Neil Young

Neil Young in concert in Oslo, Norway in 2009

As Andy Greene observes in Rolling Stone, the former, from the album Freedom, "sounds like a patriotic anthem if you just listen to the fist-pumping chorus and ignore the verses about homelessness, the destruction of the environment, the recklessness of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush's foreign policy, and a chilling tale of a baby left to die in a dumpster by a drug-addicted mother". He describes "Devil's Sidewalk" as "a super-obscure tune from Young's 2003 rock opera Greendale". Rolling Stone helpfully provides an embedded YouTube file of it. We take it on trust that they've cleared the rights and everything.

The lawsuit will be complex. Rally organisers are likely to insist that by obtaining licences from ASCAP and BMI they get permission to use any song in the US - much as, for example, licences from PRS for music allow a UK shop or pub to play any song. But, as Eriq Gardner writes in Hollywood Reporter, "as more and more musicians objected to politicians using their music, these performance rights organizations began allowing songwriters to exclude their music for political use."

The licences themselves are under challenge. The way that BMI and ASCAP work is governed by the settlement of a 1941 "anti-trust" (competition law) investigation. They want more freedom of action - which would likely include certainty over their ability to offer composers and performers those opt-outs from the blanket licensing.

Of course there have been several other such cases that went nowhere. In 2014 the Freelance reported that Vancouver band Skinny Puppy had invoiced the US government for $666k for use of their music in torture at Guantánamo Bay. In 2008 we pointed out that one obstacle to preventing such abuse is the lack in the US of any "moral right" to sue over use of a work that is "contrary to the honour or reputation" of the artist.

In theory, that right exists in UK law. But it's practically unenforceable. The band Chumbawamba weren't able to do more than denounce UKIP when it used one of their tunes at a rally.


2 September 2020

Adding noticeably to the weirdness of 2020, Billboard reports that singer Eddy Grant has sued the Trump campaign for unauthorised use of "Electric Avenue" in a video. According to the Huffington Post, Twitter took the video down as a result. There must be something that the people of Brixton can do, too... but we're at a loss for what to recommend.

As Robert Levine Tweeted: On TV news, I was asked if it's too hard for politicians to clear the use of songs in cases like this. I replied that, compared to running the United States of America, it shouldn't be all that hard to reach out to Eddy Grant."