Intellectual Property Rights In The Music Industry: Trump vs O’Connor

Sinead O’Connor’s Estate has asked Donald Trump not to use her famous “Nothing Compares 2 U” recording at his political rallies.

Trump has some form in using well known pop and rock songs at his political rallies which on occasion have riled the artists concerned.


So, what is the legal position?

We must distinguish between the position in the US and the UK and also look at what rights are involved.

Putting it simply there are two copyrights involved:

  1. The copyright in the songs themselves; and
  2. The copyright in the sound recordings embodying those songs.


Generally, in the US the relevant performing right societies, generally ASCAP and BMI, administer the public performance of songs (compositions).  These compositions are generally owned by music publishers rather than writers since the songwriters have assigned the rights in those composition to music publishers.  As music publishers want to monetise exploitation of those compositions as much as possible, even if they could (which is debatable) stop the performance of those compositions at political rallies, they will generally not do so unless the songwriter concerned has a contractual right to stop it or is a big enough name for them to care about.

In the case of performers who do not write their own songs, there is nothing they can do to stop this in relation to the composition itself.

In fact “Nothing Compares 2 U” was written by Prince rather than Sinead O’Connor so any legal attempt to prevent its being played at Trump’s rallies would need to be by Prince’s estate or music publishers.

The position is similar in the UK where PRS is the only performing right society. Generally, they will be granting blanket licences for the public performance of all songs be they political rallies, football matches or restaurants and bars.

The position in relation to copyright in sound recordings is a different one.   Sound recordings are generally owned by artists’ record companies.  Although there may be a few examples where artists have retained or bought back their sound recordings generally it is the record companies who are in charge here. There is a major difference in the US and the UK. In the US generally the public performance of sound recordings has no copyright protection so that the record companies, even if they wanted to, could not stop their public performance at political rallies.

In the UK there are so called “neighbouring rights” which protect the public performance of sound recordings.  These are administered by Phonographic Performance Limited (PPL) and generally PPL will grant blanket licences. However, PPL’s public position is that they will not grant a licence for public performance of sound recordings at political rallies without the “rights holders’” consent.  This presumably means the record companies. Although, in the UK, the performing artists do receive royalties from the public performance of their recordings so perhaps PPL will take note of their sensibilities. If in fact PPL seek only the record companies’ consent then that will normally be forthcoming unless they have an artist objecting who has enough sway (generally where they are earning the record company millions of pounds and do not owe them millions of pounds!) to bring about the prevention of the public performance of the sound recordings concerned.


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