Most recently, Queen stirred up the conversation on the first night of the Republican National Convention, calling Donald Trump’s use of their song "We Are the Champions" unauthorized. Usher, Michael Bolton, and John Mellencamp promptly appeared on Last Week Tonight With John Oliver to perform a musical plea for politicians to stop using their songs.
Just a couple of weeks later, Queen emerged victorious — Trump is now banned from using their music at his events.
But the legal reality behind "unauthorized" use like this is often pretty misunderstood.
In most cases like this, the law is actually on the politicians’ side at first. Performing rights organizations (PROs) enable venues and event hosts to purchase the rights to play song catalogs. The three main PROs — BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC — cover most of the music published in the US. As long as the venue or the campaign pays those fees, it’s allowed to play whatever music is included in the PRO’s catalog.
That means that Trump — and any other politicians who get into trouble for their song choice — is legally in the clear if he secured the PRO license.
So every time musicians speak up against the use of their music at events, they aren’t exactly pointing out an illegal action. It’s more of a request for courtesy toward the artistic intent.
But under BMI (the PRO that licenses Queen’s music), musicians are allowed to request that their songs be pulled from a given politician’s available catalog if they don’t want their work associated with the campaign. After Queen and Adele made such requests this year, BMI sent letters to the Trump campaign and the RNC detailing the artists’ objections. That means their songs are no longer available to Trump under the blanket license.
So no matter what the polls say, it seems like we won’t see Trump walk out to "We Are the Champions" again anytime soon.