Prince’s estate reiterated that it will “never” give the Trump campaign permission to use the late artist’s songs after “Purple Rain” was played at a rally in Minneapolis on Thursday. The estate responded by sharing a letter written one year ago by a lawyer on behalf of the Trump campaign promising that, while the campaign admitted no liability, it would “not use Prince’s music in connection with its activities going forward.”
Prince’s estate is hardly the first to demand that Trump stop using music during campaign events. Pharrell’s team sent a disgusted letter in October 2018 after Trump’s campaign used “Happy” at a rally—just hours after 11 people had been killed in a mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh—insisting that he not use the artist’s songs anymore. However, these demands can be difficult to enforce because the rights usually belong to the label rather than the individual artist or songwriter, and public venues often have blanket licenses for music.
The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers issues such licenses and advises that there is some, limited legal recourse for artists to challenge a campaign’s use of their music:
1. The artist’s Right of Publicity, which in many states provides image protection for famous people or artists
2. The Lanham Act, which covers confusion or dilution of a trademark (such as a band or artist name) through its unauthorized use
3. False Endorsement, where use of the artist’s identifying work implies that the artist supports a product or candidate
As a general rule, a campaign should be aware that, in most cases, the more closely a song is tied to the “image” or message of the campaign, the more likely it is that the recording artist or songwriter of the song could object to the song’s usage by the campaign.
Steven Tyler invoked those challenges in another cease-and-desist letter after Trump played Aerosmith’s “Livin’ on the Edge” at a West Virginia rally last year. “Mr. Trump is creating the false impression that our client has given his consent for the use of his music, and even that he endorses the presidency of Mr. Trump,” the complaint reads. As with Prince’s song, the complaint came after Tyler’s team had already disputed the use of his music before.
Because of all the legal loopholes, an artist who wants a politician to stop using their music may then find that the most effective method for getting them to stop isn’t the law but the candidate’s sense of shame—something Trump is not known for. At the same rally where “Purple Rain” was played, Trump railed against Somali refugees and Rep. Ilhan Omar, who he called “an America-hating socialist” to a jeering crowd.