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The Rolling Stones team up with BMI to stop Trump’s use of their songs

By | Published on Monday 29 June 2020

The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones are the latest band to join the 2020 edition of “Hey Trump, stop using my fucking music”. And the band mean business, saying they might sue the American President if he doesn’t cease and desist.

Ever since Donald Trump decided that his next reality TV project should involve running (mainly into the ground) the most powerful country in the world, a plethora of artists have hit out at him for using their music at his political rallies. This usually involves angry tweets and sometimes angry letters. Although occasionally actual legal action is threatened.

The legalities of Trump using music at his rallies is a little bit complicated. When songs are played in public spaces, their use is usually licensed via the collective licensing system, so in the US via BMI, ASCAP and the smaller performing rights organisations. Collecting societies usually provide blanket licences meaning that, once a licensee signs up, they can make use of any of the songs included in that society’s repertoire.

BMI – which represents the performing rights in the Stones’ songs Stateside – has a specific licence for political events, and the Trump campaign has got itself one of those licences. For understandable reasons, members of the society are able to opt out of that licence on a case-by-case basis. And back in 2018, the society confirmed that Rihanna had done just that in relation to the Trump licence.

The Stones have now done likewise, meaning Team Trump have received notification that their BMI licence no longer includes songs by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. And that includes ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’, which is the Stones song Trump has used at past rallies.

So far, so simple. Except, BMI set up the standalone licence for political events because sometimes such occasions take place in buildings that are not otherwise licensed by the collecting society.

However, many of Trump’s rallies do take place in venues that have BMI licences already, and those more general venue licences do not provide opt-outs for members. So could Team Trump just say that, while the Stones may no longer be covered by their own BMI licence, they can still play ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ through the sound system whenever the President stages one of his bollocks and bullshit shows in an already BMI licensed venue?

The society insists no. Comms chief Jodie Thomas told Reuters: “BMI licences political campaigns and events through its Political Entities Or Organizations Licence, which clearly states that a campaign cannot rely on a venue licence to authorise its performance of an excluded work. Therefore, a political campaign cannot and should not try to circumvent BMI’s withdrawal of musical works under its Political Entities License by attempting to rely on another licence”.

Although – as with all copyright matters – there are some complexities here. What if the Trump campaign cancelled its Political Entities Licence – meaning it was no longer bound by the terms of that agreement – and then only staged rallies in already licensed venues?

Also, when publishers tried to pull out of the digital licences of BMI and ASCAP a few years back, the courts ruled that the consent decrees that govern the two societies meant members had to be “all in” or “all out”. And it’s not entirely clear what that means for the opt-out on the political group licence.

To date Trump has generally stopped using music from artists who hit out on social media – and certainly from those who send formal cease and desist documents – without ever threatening to test any of this in court.

Sometimes those objections need to be repeated every so often – this isn’t the first time the Stones have spoken out on this issue – but the threat of any formal legal proceedings tends to be enough. Not even Trump wants to be seen to be taking on popular music stars in court, even if he occasionally lashes out at them during his tedious comedy routines.

That said, if awareness spreads that BMI offers an opt-out from its political licence which, in turn, seemingly restricts the use of venue licences by politicians, then the society could have a flood of members opting out. Given ASCAP has a similar licence with opt-outs, that could then hinder The Trump Show as the President goes into full pre-election campaign mode. Which might encourage him to call everyone’s bluff. We’ll see I guess.