Candidates need music licenses to use songs in ads

Political candidates must obtain licenses to use copyrighted music in their television commercials. These rights are often owned by artists, but not always.

The mid-election season is in full swing, which means political ads are flooding TV waves across the country.

A VERIFY viewer wondered what contestants would have to do to use popular music in these ads.

Teresa wrote via email, “Is political advertising necessary to get permission from musicians to record their music?”


Do political candidates need musicians’ permission to use their songs in campaign ads?



This requires context.

Candidates must purchase licenses to use songs in campaign ads. These rights often belong to the artists, but not always.


In the US, music is protected by Copyright ©, which means that anyone who wants to use a song has to purchase a license. The type of license depends on how the song is used.

In order to add music to your political ad – or any other video – you need to purchase what’s called a “sync license.”

“They synchronize the sound, the composition, with the video. So that’s a sync license,” said music attorney Daniel Schacht. “And usually artists have the right to approve a dubbing license.”

And just like the Grammys have separate awards for the songwriting and performance of this song, there are separate licenses for the composition and the master recording. Artists often own the rights to one or both of these licenses, depending on their involvement in the process and their dealings with their label.

“There’s copyright in the recording itself. Whoever made the recording, or the record label, will own that specific recording,” Schacht said. “And whoever wrote the music, there’s … the copyright in the composition. So the songwriters will usually own that. And a publisher takes care of that.”

To obtain these licenses, campaigns must reach their rights holders; there is no blanket license that allows you to use an entire catalog of songs for tv spots.

“The campaign will need to contact the song’s publisher and possibly the artist’s record company to negotiate the appropriate licenses with them,” reads one information brochure by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

If the performer does not own the rights to their music, there may still be an opportunity for them to sue contestants who use their music against their will, although this is less hardline than a copyright lawsuit.

“Even in these cases, whatever comes out — which is often harder for someone to assert — will be false confirmation,” Schacht said. “Maybe you don’t control your rights as an artist anymore and don’t like being associated with it [candidate]. If you can show that the public thinks you support the candidate, then you might have a claim.”

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Licensing of music at campaign events

False advertising claims are more common when candidates use music at campaign events. Unlike produced ads, candidates in these situations do not need to purchase individual licenses from artists, songwriters, labels, or publishers.

“Like any venue, be it a bar or a stadium or websites these days, [campaign] Venues can obtain public performance licenses through ASCAP or BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.), and that’s a blanket license,” said Schacht. “[It] includes entire catalogues. Probably hundreds of thousands of songs if not more.”

However, event licenses often specifically exclude third-party events such as campaign events, so ASCAP also sells campaign-specific licenses so candidates can be confident that they can play songs from the catalog anywhere.

“This license is issued for an individual candidate’s specific campaign and is only valid until the candidate is sworn into office – not for the candidate’s entire tenure. Having such licenses in place would guarantee that the music performances at the events, regardless of where you have a campaign stop, comply with copyright law,” the ASCAP booklet reads.

Still, artists have disliked or disagreed with certain candidates generally objected to on the use of their songs by these candidates at rallies. Their remedies in such cases are fairly limited once the candidate has acquired the correct license and few performers go further than publicly voicing their objections.

artists can work with the licensing authorities removing their music from the catalogue, which of course would mean less money for the artist.

“The ASCAP Political Campaign Licensing Agreement provides a blanket license to perform any or all of the millions of compositions in ASCAP’s repertoire. However, ASCAP members may ask ASCAP to exclude specific songs from a specific political campaign’s license,” reads the ASCAP brochure. “In this case, ASCAP will inform the campaign about the excluded works.”

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Laura Coffey

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