Tom Petty vs. Michele Bachmann: Can he make her quit playing "American Girl"?

Answers to your questions about the news.
June 29 2011 5:24 PM

Rebel Without a Clue

Tom Petty wants Michele Bachmann to quit using his song. Can he make her?

Michele Bachmann
Michele Bachmann

Every major Republican candidate for president eventually runs into the same problem: Musicians and songwriters are overwhelmingly liberal, and they don't like it when their songs get used at GOP campaign events. After Rep. Michele Bachmann took the stage to Tom Petty's "American Girl," Monday, the musician's lawyers sent the campaign a cease-and-desist order to stop using the song. Petty was similarly unenthused when George W. Bush used "I Won't Back Down," in 2000, and the rock band Heart was none-too-pleased when Sarah Palin adopted "Barracuda" as her theme song. Does this mean Bachmann has to find a new song?

Not if the campaign has the correct license. Petty doesn't personally approve every use of his music. Like thousands of other songs, "American Girl" is distributed  by the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, meaning that any entity that is licensed with ASCAP can play a song without getting the artist's explicit permission. This license can be held by a venue, like a club or a sports arena, and apply to all events that take place there. Or it can be held by an organization for use at their events.

Assuming the licenses were all in order, Petty probably doesn't have much legal recourse. But it would be a much different story if the campaign had used the song in an ad or a promotional video. While an ASCAP license covers the right to perform a song, you need a separate "synchronization license" from the publisher to put the song in an ad. Some artists ask for stipulations in their contracts with publishers that prevent their songs from being used for political advertisements or any other causes they find objectionable. (Neil Diamond, for example, is known to be very reluctant to license his songs for programming that is even vaguely political.)

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It's very common for musicians to object to the use of their material. In 2008, the McCain campaign ran afoul of several artists, including  John Mellencamp  and  Van Halen. In both those cases, the artists were objecting to the use of their songs at rallies, where an ASCAP license would apply. The McCain campaign  agreed to stop playing Mellencamp songs  voluntarily. The issue also frequently crops up with Christian groups that do not wish their material to be used at events they find objectionable.

Got a question about today's news?  Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Gordon P. Firemark; Steve Gordon; Lawrence Iser; Kathy O'Connor of the Xcel Energy Center; and Barry Shrum of Harris, Martin, Jones, Shrum, Bradford & Wommack.

Note: The Explainer first tackled the question of whether politicians can use songs over the objections of  recording artists back in 2008. This piece uses material from Chris Wilson's article "Will McCain's Heart Stop?"

Chris Wilson is a Slate contributor.

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