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Dr. Dre, Greene Feud Over Music Copyright in Politics: Explained

Jan. 11, 2023, 10:05 AM

Rapper and record producer Dr. Dre made clear that he doesn’t want his music being used by controversial Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), whose political video featuring his 1999 hit “Still D.R.E.” was removed from Twitter following a copyright takedown request.

Dr. Dre, whose real name is Andre Young, also sent Greene a letter through his attorney Howard King demanding that she stop using his music for political campaign promotions.

The video posted on Jan. 9 featured Greene walking the halls of Congress following the election of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

The dust up is the latest in a long history of musicians fighting politicians they say use their songs for political purposes—like campaign rallies and ads—without permission, and in violation of copyright law.

The complaints go back decades. Bruce Springsteen famously demanded that Republican President Ronald Reagan stop using his “Born in the U.S.A.” for his re-election campaign. The soul duo Sam & Dave in 2008 requested that then-presidential candidate Barack Obama stop playing “Hold On, I’m Comin’” at his campaign events.

The modern emphasis on celebrity branding has driven even more artists to monitor how their music is being used for political purposes, copyright experts have noted.

“I don’t license my music to politicians, especially someone as divisive and hateful as this one,” Dr. Dre said in a statement.

Greene replied in a statement to Dr. Dre: “While I appreciate the creative chord progression, I would never play your words of violence against women and police officers, and your glorification of the thug life and drugs.”

More recently, former President Donald Trump was condemned and threatened with legal action by numerous musicians including the Rolling Stones, Panic! at the Disco, Nickelback, and the estate of Tom Petty, for using their songs at campaign rallies.

Rock legend Neil Young filed a lawsuit against Trump’s campaign for using his song “Rockin’ in the Free World” during his 2020 re-election campaign, which he later dropped.

1. What laws govern music in politics?

The Copyright Act gives artists the exclusive right to publicly perform and monetize their work. When a politician uses a song at a rally or in a campaign ad without permission or a license, that could be the basis for copyright infringement.

Musicians can more easily deal with unauthorized songs featured in online ads and videos. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act requires online platforms like Twitter to adhere to copyright takedown requests from rightsholders.

If Greene wants to use a song synchronized with a video, she would need to contact and negotiate separate licenses with both the record label that usually owns the sound recording and the artist who owns the musical composition.

Using songs at campaign events can be just as complicated.

The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers and Broadcast Music Inc. are two performance rights organizations that provide “blanket licenses” that cover tens of millions of songs to be used in public performances like a rally. For years, if a campaign obtained a blanket license, they’d generally be in the clear. That has changed in recent, though, as ASCAP and BMI have begun to write exceptions into their contracts.

ASCAP’s Political Campaign License still provides a broad catalog, but songwriters and composers can opt-out of any specific license given to a campaign. The Rolling Stones in 2020 asked BMI to remove their songs from Trump’s “political entities license” after threatening legal action.

2. Could Dr. Dre sue Greene?

Although musicians frequently object to songs being used by politicians, lawsuits are quite rare. Most campaigns, fearing public blowback, will stop using the music once the artists has amassed a large enough pressure campaign.

The few exceptions usually involve music used in campaign ads. In 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain created a TV ad mocking Democratic candidate Barack Obama’s energy policy, which contained background music from “Running On Empty” by rock musician Jackson Browne.

Browne, a vocal Democrat and Obama supporter, sued McCain for failing to obtain a license to use the music. A federal judge denied McCain’s motion to dismiss, and the case later settled.

Trump is currently facing a lawsuit from Eddy Grant, the songwriter behind the hit song “Electric Avenue,” which was used without permission in a 2020 campaign video posted on Trump’s Twitter account. The judge in that case also denied Trump an early dismissal.

In theory, artists like Dr. Dre could also argue that Greene’s use of his music is a false political endorsement or that it violates his right-to-publicity under state law. But those claims could be more difficult to prove in court.

3. What about ‘fair use’?

The fair use doctrine allows for the unauthorized use of copyrighted works in certain circumstances to balance copyright law and free expression.

The Copyright Act outlines four different legal factors to determine fair use, like whether the copyrighted work has been “transformed,” how much of it was used, and whether the use will undermine the commercial market of the original work.

The fair use defense is a fact-specific inquiry that requires a close examination of the how exactly a campaign or politician used a song. The existence of licensing carve-outs for political uses, though, diminishes the chances of successfully invoking the doctrine in this kind of case.

In Grant’s lawsuit against Trump, the judge ruled against the fair use defense, finding that even if Trump’s ad was conveying a political message protected by the First Amendment, his use of Grant’s song was “commercial” and “may threaten Grant’s licensing market.”

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To contact the reporter on this story: Isaiah Poritz in Washington at iporitz@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Adam M. Taylor at ataylor@bloombergindustry.com; Jay-Anne B. Casuga at jcasuga@bloomberglaw.com