UPDATE: The Rolling Stones want Donald Trump to stop playing their music at his rallies. Can they legally do it? Maybe.

Whenever Donald Trump holds a rally, his people play music to pump up the crowd. This has greatly annoyed a couple dozen artists who don’t want any of their art to be associated with Trump and the MAGA group in any way. That list includes Neil Young, REM, Rihanna, Tom Petty, Panic! At the Disco, Elton John, Guns N’ Roses, Queen, and even The Village People. (They hate the way Trump preens to “Macho Man.”)

But is there anything any of these artists can do about it? No. They can file all the cease-and-desists they want, but none will stick because of how songs are licensed for public performance.

Most of Trump’s rallies take place in venues such as arenas and other places of public assembly. Those venues are all covered by performing rights licenses (in the US, that’s ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC; Canada has SOCAN), which means they pay an annual fee for the privilege of playing music as part of their day-to-day business. Whoever rents the venue can play whatever music they like during their event because of that blanket performing rights license. So while these anti-Trump artists may object to the use of their songs, there’s not much they can do.

However, the Rolling Stones–who hate Trump and that he regularly plays their music (most strangely, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”)–are working very hard to make him stop.

The Stones are working with BMI to figure out a way around the blanket performing license thing. Their argument is that a Trump rally is unambiguously a political entity. As such, the campaign should require a special sort of license–actually called a “Political Entities License”–for such specific use. If they succeed in going this route, songwriters can object to how their songs are used in this regard and can say “cut it out.” In other words, they can instruct the performing rights organization that they’re opting out.

The PEL clause was conceived about a decade ago to cover exactly these sorts of eventualities. And it turns out that the Trump campaign DOES have a PEL (or so it’s been reported by some).

BMI had this to say (via Variety): “There is a provision, however, that allows BMI to exclude musical works from the license if a songwriter or publisher objects to its use by a campaign. BMI has received such an objection and sent a letter notifying the Trump campaign that the Rolling Stones’ works have been removed from the campaign license, and advising the campaign that any future use of these musical compositions will be in breach of its license agreement with BMI.”

It should be pointed out that this sort of legal challenge is still untested. And even if the Stones do sue, who will face penalties? Trump? The campaign? The venue. No idea.

Reader Bob raises another point:

“What about ‘moral rights?’ I appreciate that the BMI license is a blanket license, but even with this as a UK artist/writer the Stones have a moral right to object to the use of their song in a way that could impact the integrity of their song. This right cannot be generally waived under most laws internationally. Remember when Bryan Adams successfully stopped David Duke from using one of his songs in California on ‘moral rights grounds? I am just curious why this argument isn’t being used.”

Can anyone shed any light on that argument?

But back to Trump. It may be that of Trump uses “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” at a rally, the Stones will sue. And believe me, if they can, they will. If they’re successful, watch for virtually every other artist this side of Kid Rock and Ted Nugent to do the same.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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