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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.