Artistic Ownership and You!


He’s Not Going to Take It

It’s hard for anything to not somehow relate back to the ongoing 2012 election at the moment. So when I recently read on entertainment news sites about how Dee Snider took offense at Paul Ryan playing the Twisted Sister song “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” I wasn’t surprised. It had to do with music, so of course entertainment news would report it. And it’s not like this is the first time this has happened, either. See Heart’s issue with Sarah Palin using “Barracuda,” “Born in the U.S.A.” being used by Reagan, Survivor insisting Newt Gingrich stop using “Eye of the Tiger,” and Sam Moore asking Obama not to play “Hold On, I’m Coming” in 2008.

As a writer, an artist, someone who wants to create things for others to view and enjoy, this got me thinking. Would there ever be a point that I would turn from blind joy that ANYONE shows interest in what I’ve made to anger over who expresses their fondness for my creation?

At what point does an artist stop having ownership of what they’ve made? Are they getting paid for the song getting played, and does that give them the ability to pick and choose where it is used?  And not merely financial ownership, but ownership of the spirit of the movie, song, book, art, etc.? If a musician can take umbrage at a political candidate using their song as background music, could an author insist that a politician not quote their writing because they disagree with their policies?

Making sure musicians get theirs

After a bit of online-investigation, I found that yes, musicians (and labels, basically whoever owns the song’s license) have to get paid if their song is played “in a public place or any place where people gather (other than a small circle of a family or its social acquaintances.) A public performance is also one that is transmitted to the public…[exemptions include] music played or sung as part of a worship service” that isn’t broadcast or as “part of face to face teaching activity at a non-profit educational institutions” (there’s also certain exemptions for restaurants, bars, retails stores, and the like)*. From what I understand, the simplified explanation is that any songs you’ve heard between innings of baseball games or during county fairs should have been played by a DJ or someone who has paid for an ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) license.

I’m still not sure if there’s specific rules regarding politics. Technically, rallies are trying to “sell” the candidate. So perhaps it’s covered by a different set of rules (akin to use in advertising). This isn’t meant as a debate about policy or parties. Artists have every right to disagree with what their music is used to promote. But is it right for them just to pick on politics? Lifelong Dodgers fan Neil Diamond has embraced the fact that “Sweet Caroline” has become an anthem for the Boston Red Sox. I view music choices as just another part of the marketing of an idea, I don’t assume the creators support or use a product just because their music is in an ad or at an event.

This goes beyond just being a point of debate in politics. Probably the most famous example of an artist’s sense of ownership clashing with the sensibilities of the general public is George Lucas and his seemingly annual “update” of Star Wars. It’s odd, because Lucas has been one of the most forward-thinking creators in terms of letting others expand and add to the world he created. There are the innumerable book series, the lauded animated Clone Wars series and the upcoming (much more irreverent) Seth Green show Star Wars: Detours. But that’s making additions to the world, not the work.

Maybe the album art helps encourage the confusion.

The Star Wars situation is kind of the opposite of the musician vs. politician issue. The public does not like the “artist” use of the creation. But it all revolves around the central concept of the meaning art takes once it has been created. Can an artist control the significance his/her art develops? “Born in the U.S.A.” was not written as a super-patriotic anthem, yet there’s probably a large percentage of Americans to whom it is the centerpiece of their Fourth of July playlist.

At first, I’d like to think I would be understanding if something I wrote were used by someone I didn’t personally agree with. But the more I ponder the subject, the murkier my thoughts get. It would be like a quote of mine being taken out of context. I’ve written a monologue that used  a hypothetical situation to set up my real thoughts on a particular subject. I would be devastated if the set-up were cited as my actual opinion, without the context of the whole. I would immediately respond with an explanation as to the truth.

That’s got to be what these musicians feel. I guess what mostly leaves a sour taste in my mouth is the imperious tone I feel from their outrage. An objection to the use within a thought-out statement, that to me seems reasonable. Threatening to file a lawsuit to have a candidate never play the song again is just symbolic, since I assume high-profile campaigns hire music coordinators who have licenses to play a large catalog of songs. It just conjures up the image of a overly-dramatic diva artist. At least to me.

Disagree with my feelings on political use of music? Have you ever heard of an artist refusing to let their song be played at anything besides a political event? Let me know in the comments.

* This comes from the FAQs section of the ASCAP.

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