Henley scores win in fight against political Eagle song spoofs

By | Published on Thursday 3 June 2010

Eagles man Don Henley has scored a tentative win in his legal fight against Republican politician Chuck DeVore. Henley is the latest in a string of US musicians to complain when their music is appropriated for political campaigning, usually by Republicans.

While politicians can play music at political rallies without specific artist permission, using a blanket public performance licence, if they sync a track into a video posted on their websites without getting the permission of the artists or their label/publisher – as an increasing number of political types seem to do – then there is a case to sue under copyright law.

As previously reported, Jackson Browne reached an out of court settlement with John McCain after the former Presidential wannabe used one of his songs in a campaign video without permission, and David Byrne has just begun legal proceedings against Florida Governor Charlie Crist over his use of a Talking Heads track in a campaign video.

But in the Henley case, DeVore, as part of his campaign for a seat in the US Senate, rewrote the lyrics to Eagles song ‘All She Wants To Do Is Dance’ so it was called ‘All She Wants To Do Is Tax’, the “she” being his Democrat rival Barbara Boxer. He also wrote a version of ‘The Boys Of Summer’ that directly mocked the Eagles man for his support of Obama.

When Henley filed a legal complaint, DeVore argued that his songs were parody, in part parodying Hollywood’s general support for liberal politicians. This is an important distinction, because parodies can fall under ‘fair use’ exemptions in US copyright law, meaning DeVore might be able to use one of Henley’s songs without permission.

You might remember that the makers of ‘Family Guy’ got away with broadcasting a rework of Disney classic ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ without the permission of the song’s owners because they argued their spoof version, called ‘I Need A Jew’, in part mocked Walt Disney for his purported anti-Semitism. The song was therefore a parody, was protected by First Amendment free speech rights, and constituted fair use under copyright law.

But what about DeVore’s Eagles reworks? Well, US Judge James Selna has said it could be argued the second song – which specifically mocked Henley for being a Democrat supporter – constituted parody, but that ‘All She Wants To Do Is Tax’, which mocked Boxer not Henley, is ‘satire’ not ‘parody’, and therefore does not enjoy the protection awarded to Team Family Guy with ‘I Need A Jew’. Selna added that even the ‘The Boys Of Summer’ rework, while in part parody, should not be covered by fair use because it “goes far beyond what’s necessary to hold the singer up to ridicule”.

It’s a tentative win for Henley because the judge’s ruling is not final and therefore not binding, but usually tentative rulings like this are subsequently rubber stamped and become official, though arguments between both sides continue.

Henley’s other argument that DeVore implied false endorsement by using reworks of his songs on his website was dismissed.