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. 

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  1. Ian David Moss says:

    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.

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  2. Corwin Delight says:

    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?

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    • Melissa Belvadi says:

      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.

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  3. Mike says:

    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.

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  4. Dave Benjamin says:

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

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