Do Musicians Block GOP Candidates From Using Their Songs?

When GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s team was looking for a theme song for his campaign, Kid Rock’s hit “Born Free” hit a chord. But instead of doing what countless other politicians before him had done, simply take the song and start blasting it at events, Romney first asked Rock’s permission.

Attorney Larry Iser is taking credit for Romney’s ask first, use song later approach.

“I can proudly say it was primarily the two pieces of litigation that we handled on a national scale, Browne versus McCain, and David Byrne versus Charlie Christ, that have served to educate the political community and their ad agencies,” said Iser, a partner at the L.A. law firm Kinsella, Weitzman, Iser, Kump and Aldisert. “The fact that Mitt Romney asked for and actually got permission from Kid Rock is a giant leap forward for the rights of musicians and songwriters.”

Romney’s approach does seem to be the exception to the politicians’ rule. But could he have taken this tack because musicians often seem to lean anti-GOP?

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Earlier this year, Republican hopeful Michele Bachmann was issued a “cease and desist” letter from rocker Tom Petty’s music publisher insisting that she stop playing his “American Girl” at campaign events. The Foo Fighters and John Mellencamp asked John McCain to stop playing their hits during his presidential run in 2008, and McCain settled out-of-court with Jackson Browne last year after the singer-songwriter sued McCain and the Ohio and national Republican committees, accusing them of using his song "Running on Empty" without his permission.

John Hall, a member of the band Orleans, was not happy when George W. Bush played “Still the One” at an event in 2004. The former President was also rebuffed by Tom Petty, John Mellencamp and Sting during his presidential runs for making use of their tracks. And way back in 1984, Bruce Springsteen was unhappy when Ronald Reagan used his hit “Born in the USA."

Then there was the Iser’s case involving Charlie Crist. After the Republican’s failed 2010 run for U.S. Senate, the former Florida Governor  was slapped with an $1 million lawsuit by  Talking Heads frontman David Byrne over the use of his song “Road to Nowhere” in an online campaign video. The suit too was settled out-of-court, and Crist issued a public apology to Byrne via YouTube.

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On the other hand, Bill Clinton used Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” in his successful 1992 presidential bid, Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry played Springsteen’s “No Surrender” in his 2004 campaign, in 2008 Sen. Barack Obama revived Springsteen’s “The Rising,” and that same year fellow Democrat John Edwards used Mellancamp’s “Our Country.” All of these came and went without objection from the artists. In fact, except for 2008, when Barack Obama was sent a “cease and desist” letter from the legal team for Sam Moore (one half of the legendary duo Sam & Dave) over the unlicensed use of “Hold On, I’m Comin’” as background beat at his rallies, its hard to find examples of Democrats getting taken to task.

So why do Democrats seem to get more free passes then Republicans?

“Musicians are part of the entertainment industry which is mostly anti-Republican. So lefty performers hate having conservatives use their music,” says Vice President of the Business & Media Institute and political commentator, Dan Gainor. “There's definitely a PR component to complaining about politicians using your music. If you have a hardcore lefty base of listeners and you bash Michele Bachmann, then you score points. Imagine if a liberal tried to use Toby Keith's ‘Courtesy Of The Red, White, And Blue.’ Keith and his fans would rightly be upset. But that never happens since liberals don't like images of the flag.”

Iser disgarees.

“I would say certainly in recent years, there's been a greater unlicensed use of songs by Republican candidates,” Iser, said. “The point that the musician is making is not about the [political] party. The position they're taking is: This is what we do for a living, we are protected by copyright, and if you're running for election, you need to respect the law. It just is a coincidence really, simple as that.”

Iser stresses that when it comes to music and campaigns, artists and songwriters only want to protect their intellectual property rights and ensure that they aren’t involuntary endorsers of candidates and campaign messages.

“If you're Jackson Browne or you're David Byrne or if you're Kid Rock, you have the right, just like you and I have, to choose to endorse somebody or not,” he continued. “When the song is used without permission, you've taken away the choice that the songwriter has to say 'yes' or say 'no.' Another reason, which is more fundamental, is that when you take somebody's song and use it without permission, then the songwriter and the singer, the performer, they don't get paid. People often forget that writing songs and performing them and selling records and actually licensing music for use in advertising, that's how these guys make a living. That’s how they put food on the table.”

But Kid Rock, for his part, isn't asking for cash from Romney to use "Born Free," or from any other candidate for that matter.

After Romney chose his song, Rock wrote on his blog that Romney “and anyone else who wants to use my song do not need my permission. I said he could use it and I would say the same for any other candidate. I have to have a little faith that every candidate feels like he or she can help this country.”

Deidre Behar contributed to this report.