Can Neil Young successfully sue Donald Trump over the usage of his music at rallies? As with so many recent controversies in music, it all comes down to a tricky copyright issue.
Young filed a lawsuit against Trump’s campaign Tuesday, claiming that the president and his campaign team lack the proper rights to play his songs “Rockin’ in the Free World” and “Devil’s Sidewalk” at rallies and demanding statutory damages from the politician for willful copyright infringement.
The lawsuit is just the latest in a long line of clashes between Young and Trump — dating back to June 2015, when Trump played “Rockin’ in the Free World” after announcing his presidential run. Trump most recently played the Freedom cut at events in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Mount Rushmore, despite Young’s longstanding objection.
But does the musician have a case? “It’s absolutely a license issue,” Gary Adelman — a New York-based entertainment business attorney at Adelman Matz — tells Rolling Stone. He notes that the case will hinge on whether the artist has specifically removed those particular songs from his public performance organization’s blanket licenses: “If he has withdrawn those two particular songs from BMI’s political license program, then the Trump administration does not have a license to play them at a political rally and they have a good case that they will more likely win.”
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Young’s complaint alleges that Trump’s campaign “does not now have, and did not at the time of the Tulsa rally, have a license or Plaintiff’s permission to play the two Songs at any public political event,” but it does not specify its licensing status with BMI, the performance rights organization that manages usage rights of Young’s catalog. Neither Young nor BMI immediately responded to Rolling Stone‘s request for comment.