The Copyright Wars Come to the Obama-Romney Campaign

Last week, the Obama campaign released this sharp-elbowed political ad featuring Mitt Romney’s off-key rendition of “America the Beautiful.” And the Romney campaign promptly issued a sort of knock off — an ad featuring President Obama singing Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.”  The Romney ad uses the song to criticize Obama’s allegedly too-cozy relationship with lobbyists and campaign fundraisers. 

We can’t show you the Romney ad, as it’s been pulled from YouTube.  Why?  Because BMG Rights Management, the music publisher that owns the copyright in “Let’s Stay Together,” has sent YouTube a copyright takedown notice under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and YouTube has complied.

And we also can’t show you the original news footage of Obama singing — that’s also been taken down from YouTube following BMG’s copyright complaint.  The Obama ad featuring Romney’s singing is still up there – fortunately for the Obama campaign, “America the Beautiful” is a very old song (first released in 1910) and so the copyright has expired and the song is in the public domain.

Regardless of what your political persuasion might be, this is pretty nutty.  BMG is asserting, in essence, that its private copyright interests come before Mitt Romney’s interest in getting his political message out there, and the American public’s interest in hearing it.  And also that their copyright outweighs the interest of the news media in reporting the news – so if Obama makes a political point by singing a copyrighted song, the media can’t report that fact using the actual performance.  

The Romney ad and the underlying Obama news footage are about the clearest possible case of fair use that can be imagined, and BMG’s action illustrate the perils of overzealous enforcement of rules against copying.  Does a video showing Obama singing “Let’s Stay Together” interfere with the market for the Al Green song?  No. There is no real threat to BMG’s copyright interests in the first place.

Whatever your politics might be, we should all be able to agree that Mitt Romney should be permitted to get his message out without the copyright laws getting in the way. And the same goes for the news media reporting the news. 


I don't see any problem with BMG placing their private commercial interests over our the United States' political process. First, the Supreme Court has made it clear that our Founding Fathers intended for commercial interests to trump political interests and the peoples' right to information in their Citizens United ruling. BMG is simply protecting its copyright, a financial interest. Whether Mr. Obama violated their rights in singing the song in public without paying a royalty is a violation or not refers to be seen. And second, I think we're entitled to a bit more information about policies and the outcomes of the policies of the candidates rather than their singing ability and, in exercising their copyright, BMG has, perhaps, in their own small way, improved our political process.


That interpretation of the Supreme Court's ruling is so deliberately crass that I'd almost call it sarcastic (sardonic?) Either your entire post is meant to be ironic or this is a golden example of a smart person using their intellect to justify their emotionally driven opinion rather than to inform it. Could be both, I suppose.

Iljitsch van Beijnum

But somehow it's ok that private money making interests in the form of the TV networks requiring payment for messages from the candidates, are allowed to poison American politics by requiring candidates to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars to have a chance at being elected?

As for the issue at hand: if the president (or a candidate) uses some copyrighted content in a public appearance, it should be possible to report on that without copyright trouble. But ads for other stuff also have to pay royalties to authors, so if they want to use this stuff in political ads, that's a different thing.

Jerry Tsai

Even though I may agree that copyrights may be overzealously enforced, who cares if the Romney campaign cannot use a clip of Obama singing? I am not planning to vote-- and I hope nobody is planning to vote-- on a candidate's singing voice. Whatever points the pro-Romney ad makes, it can make them without Obama's singing.

I'm sure, with the hundreds of millions of dollars Romney's campaign and his affiliated Super PACs have raised, they can afford to purchase the additional creativity in which they can air an ad with a similar message but without the video clip.

So basically--BMG exclaiming copyright violation is ridiculous, but in this case, who cares?


Isn't this more of an issue of Youtube not wanting to fight the takedown request than some new standard of copyright?


I'd venture a guess that Obama's rendition did nothing but BOOST awareness (and sales) of a 40-year-old song with a new generation. Why use copyright law to block free advertising?


This is yet another example of how the Obama campaign is playing 14-dimensional chess: When Obama sings to a crowd, he sings a song that's not in the public domain, so it can never be used in a commercial against him. Mittens, meanwhile, sings a public domain song that leaves him wide open for an attack ad. Checkmate!


I think you got your description mixed up a bit. Do you mean that President Obama sings a song that _IS_ in the public domain? (instead of is not?) And then, don't you also mean that Mitt Romney sings a song that is _NOT_ in the public domain?

Or did you have some subtle sort of reverse ironic sarcastic critique working there?

RJ Roy

No, he's saying that since the song sung by Obama is copywrited, it would be taken down if someone tried to use that performance against him.

This is opposed to Romney, who performed a song in the public domain, and thus can't have a claim of infringement levied against it if it was used in an attack.


Oh boy.

If the music copyrights industry is supporting President Obama, I'm afraid I'm going to have to vote against him.

That is the depth of my abhorrence for companies like BMG. For years I used "Disney lawyers" as my measure of the absolute scummiest people in the universe. About three years ago I shifted to "music copyright lawyers" as my new base of scumbag-ness.

Enter your name...

It's the other way around: BMG forced a takedown of Obama's communication.

David Bley

Somebody needs to send BMG a bill for advertising their music. Copyright has gotten way out of hand. When did our laws change from protecting the powerless individual from the wealthy and powerful to the inverse? I don't just mean copyright. How about patents or contract disputes, to name but a couple?

Ian David Moss

Actually, I don't agree that "Mitt Romney should be permitted to get his message out without the copyright laws getting in the way." A number of Republican candidates have run afoul of copyright law when they have tried to use the songs of liberal musicians to rally their base or in commercials without said musicians' permission. (See, for example, Charlie Crist apologizing to David Byrne for using the Talking Heads song "Road to Nowhere"). I fail to see how this is a legitimate fair use. On the other hand, Obama singing "Let's Stay Together" was a story covered by the news media, and as a news story the footage of it should be available to the public. And since Romney's ad uses footage from a news story, that counts as fair use by association.


Corwin Delight

I'll be the first to admit that I don't know too much about copywrite law, but how does Obama's singing of a song not fall under fair use? It's fairly obvious that he's not claiming that he wrote the song, and it's not like Obama used the actual real song in that clip. It was him singing a song in public. If I walk down the street singing something, BMG can't drive up in a van and give me a cease and desist order. How is this any different?

Melissa Belvadi

Umm, actually they can - you would be infringing a portion of copyright law called "public performance rights". They probably wouldn't bother, but legally they could.


I might add BMG is shooting itself in the foot. People might've heard that song and been reminded how much they like it, and bought it. That said, maybe Obama's version was so terrible it might've decreased sales... I'll never get to find out.

Dave Benjamin

This seems like much ado about nothing. It is routine for the entertainment industry to vigorously defend their copyrights.