I received a call from one of my readers to address the topic of whether a songwriter has the ability to restrict the use of his or her composition in the instance it is being used in advancing a cause opposite to that espoused by the songwriter. This was spawned, of course, by the recent allegations of Tom Scholz, lead member of the group Boston, that his 1970’s mega-smash “More than a Feeling” was being used by Mike Huckabee, whose views were opposite those held by Scholz. It is an interesting inquiry, and one that has simple solutions, mostly based in contract law.
There are two contract concepts that are usually incorporated into standard music publishing agreements which impact this issue: one is the concept of droit or moral rights and two is the restrictions on exploitation. I’ll address them in reverse order.
Grant of Rights
Typically, when a songwriter assigns his copyright in a song to a music publisher, there is grant language contained in the agreement expressly establishing the rights he or she is granting to the music publisher. In that contract language, there is typically a clause that reads something like this:
The Publisher shall have the right to administer, use and exploit all interests in the Compositions . . . provided, however, that the approval of Writer shall be required for the use of any Composition:
(i) in any motion picture which Publisher has actual knowledge of an “X” or equivalent rating;
(ii) in any advertisement or other promotion for tobacco, firearms or personal hygiene products; or
(iii) in connection with religious or political purposes.
As you can plainly see, in this instance at least, the music publisher would be contractually required to obtain the approval of the writer prior to authorizing the use of the composition in a political rally, among other things.
If this type of language is not included in the songwriter agreement, or if the grant language included in the songwriter’s agreement is, in general, more broadly worded, then the rights of the songwriter to restrict the use of the song would be greatly impaired.
Droit or Moral Rights
The other legal concept which comes in to play, both from an historic perspective and contractually, is the concept of droit or “moral” rights, although it is important to realize up front that this concept is most often applied, in the U.S. at least, to works of visual art, not musical compositions.
First, in connection to the copyright concept, don’t infuse the the word “moral” with the ethical connotations generally associated with in in the United States. The use in this concept is much more in the sense of an embodiment of a type of something, i.e., the Monet painting is the moral equivalent of impressionist art. As used in this sense, it refers to the ability of the creator of a copyright to control the “embodiment” of his work, or its “integrity.” The French-derived word “Droit” is, perhaps, more to the point when discussing copyright: it means “a legal right.”
So, in the United States at least, the phrase “droit” or “moral rights” generally refers to the right of the copyright creator to prevent third parties from taking credit for, revising, altering, or distorting his or her creation, regardless of who owns the work, i.e., regardless of whether the copyright has been assigned or transferred.
In contrast, the concept has generally received much broader application in European states. France, for example, recognizes four moral rights:
the right of disclosure;
the right to correct or withdraw works previously disclosed to the public;
the right of attribution; and
the right of integrity (the right to “respect” the work).
When the U.S. joined the Berne Convention, Congress attempted to bring its copyright laws into line with those of the other signatory companies by passing Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA) codified generally at 17 U.S.C. §§106, 106A, and 113. As implied earlier, however, this statute applies solely to visual arts and not musical compositions. Nonetheless, the concept of droit or moral rights may be invoked when dealing with the misappropriation of a songwriter’s musical composition.
In addition to copyright law, there a several other legal concepts which may be implicated in this situation. For example, if a person is somehow giving false attribution to a creative work, e.g., attempting to pass off an creator’s work as his or her own, that person may be liable under the concept of “unfair competition,” which is barred by the Lanham Act (15 U.S.C. §1051). Or, if the creation is widely recognized as a work of the creator, any distortion or alteration of the creation may constitute trademark “dilution” under trade dress laws and statutes. More generally, if authorship of a work is somehow falsely attributed, the creator may have a state action for defamation against the person responsible for the false attribution. If a person uses the identity of an songwriter, or the compositions, for his or her own benefit without permission, a violation the songwriter’s right of publicity may have occurred. Thus, there may be several remedies available in this type of situation.
In the US, however, it is accepted practice that if a person can waive a right, such a waiver will be in a contract. This is no exception. Again, there is language in most songwriting agreements which “waives all droit or moral rights” in the copyright. Such a waiver would likely nullify any of these general legal remedies available to the songwriter.
As always, I highly recommend that any songwriter contemplating a deal with a music publisher contact a reputable entertainment attorney.