The iconic rock band Queen doesn’t like Donald Trump. Sadly for Queen, he likes them.
Is This the Real Life? Is This Just Fantasy?
Trump used their super famous song “We are the Champions” to walk onstage at the Republican National Convention.
Bombastic and crass in a particularly Trumpian, 80s wanna be cool way? Sure. Illegal? Probably not.
Queen responded (like your grandma who always signs her Facebook posts “-Grandma”) with:
This isn’t the first time. Maybe he’s just a poor boy, he needs no sympathy, but a month ago, Queen’s Brian May blogged about his anger that Trump uses his songs.
Buddy You’re a Boy Make a Big Noise
As far as permission to use the song goes, Queen got blood on its face, huge disgrace. According to Sean Spicer, a big honcho at the RNC, they got a license.
Campaigns, like other big events, buy licenses from organizations that maintain an extensive roster of famous songs. The organization lists songs by its members, the owners of the copyrights on the music. The organization then collects the licensing fee, passes that along to the copyright owners, and enforces licensing violations on behalf of the copyright owners. Easy peasy. The system works quietly behind the scenes and everyone is happy, or at least not unhappy enough to complain much. ASCAP and BMI are the two big players in this country. Sure enough, “We are the Champions” is licensed by BMI, charmingly to someone named “Mercury Frederick.” It’s always good to confirm things that should be route with the Trump campaign, but I think we can safely assume by BMI’s silence that some responsible party at the RNC did, indeed, license the music. If so, Trump is not in violation of the copyright.
God Knows, God Knows I Want to Break Free
Even if the campaign did not buy a license, whether or not the use of the song would fall into the “Fair Use” exception is open to debate.
Fair Use is a defense to copyright violations. Basically, if someone sues a person for using their song, when that case gets to court, the person being sued will say “Yes, I used the song, yes it belongs to this other person, but it’s ok because it’s fair use.” And if the judge or jury agrees, another copyright case bites the dust.
America has broad fair use standards in comparison to much of the world because America values free speech to the extent of stepping on the toes of copyright owners. This has only gotten stronger in recent years, with the Internet being the Wild Wild West of copyright infringement under the banner of fair use, but I digress.
Judges look at four factors when considering fair use: 1) the purpose and character of the use, 2) the nature of the copyrighted work, 3) the amount and substantiality of the portion taken, and 4) the effect of the use upon the potential market.
Because campaigns are (at least until Trump) shy about negative publicity, these factors haven’t been fully tested in court in the context of political campaigns, but they likely weigh in favor of use of snippets of songs by a campaign. First, the nature of the use is political speech, which is the type of speech passionately protected by First Amendment caselaw. Secondly, the campaigns tend to use just portions of the songs for the walk on. Nobody wants to sit through all five minutes of “We are the Champions” before listening to Trump blather, I mean, speak. So the entire song is not used, which is a big factor. Finally, it would be hard to argue that using a portion of a song in a campaign somehow cuts into the sales of the song, which is another big factor.
Pressure Pushing Down on Me, Pressing Down on You
Probably the real problem to Brian May and the rest of Queen is the very notion of being associated with someone like Trump. They’re in the terror of knowing what [Trump] is about, watching some good friends screaming “Let me out.”
This is more of a trademark issue than a copyright issue. There are fancy legal terms associated like “Lanham Act” and “Right of Publicity,” but the basic crux of the issue is whether or not the use of the song would trick people into thinking the band supports the candidate. Think of it in terms of purses. If I stick a Gucci label on a knock-off purse, I’m violating the trademark because a purchaser will think that purse came from Gucci. (Or if they bought it on a street corner in New York, they won’t think so but maybe their friends will.) I’m basically stealing the good name of Gucci and using it to my own ends.
For a band or celebrity to sue under this theory requires them to convince a jury or judge that the people listening in the crowd were confused into thinking that Queen endorses Trump. That seems like a long shot in this context, don’t you think?
Carry On, Carry On As if Nothing Really Matters
An interesting wrinkle (interesting at least to copyright nerds) is that Queen is a British band. Just as copyright law in America tends to bend in the direction of encouraging free speech, copyright law in England has a slightly different flavor. They have something called moral rights, which do not exist here. This concept gives the copyright holder much greater control over the association of their work, protecting the reputation and person of the copyright holder. This includes the right to be credited when the work is used and the right to object to derogatory treatment, distortion, or mutilation of the work.
Queen would probably feel that Trump’s use of a portion of their song is mutilation of their song.
I am not a scholar of British law, so I do not know if these laws would apply to Trump’s use of Queen’s songs were they occurring in the UK, but I’m sure the thinking informs the background of Brian May’s objections.