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Rosanne Cash: It's 'Not Right' When Politicians Use Songs Without Permission

Rosanne Cash
Michael Levine

Rosanne Cash

Cash made the comments during a discussion at an online music law conference hosted by the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property.

As the presidential race heats up, Rosanne Cash says politicians have no right to use an artist's songs to promote their campaigns without permission. Cash's comments come on the heels of the Artist Rights Alliance’s open letter to the Democratic and Republican National, Congressional and Senatorial committees insisting that politicians get clearance on the music they use at their events and in advertisements.

"It isn't just in the air that you can grab it, make it to your own agenda and co-opt it without permission," said Cash on Thursday (Sept. 10) during a fireside chat held as part of online music law conference The Evolving Music Ecosystem, hosted by the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School. "There's an implication that the artists support that agenda and that’s not right."

The lineup for the conference, which is being held over a three-day span and concludes Friday, also features speakers Danielle Aguirre, executive vp & general counsel, National Music Publishers’ Association; Mitch Glazier, chairman & chief legal officer, Recording Industry Association of America; Jennifer Leff, senior director, MusiCares; and Todd Dupler, managing director, advocacy & public policy at the Recording Academy.

Cash's fireside chat was hosted by Prof. Sandra Aistars, director of copyright research & policy at Antonin Scalia Law School and senior scholar at the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property. During the discussion, Cash said she refuses to stay silent during this crucial and divisive political time.

"I'm very involved politically, and I have a lot of social issues I care about," she said. "I've been involved in the anti-gun violence movement for 20 years and a lot of times people have said to me 'shut up and sing.' That's anatomically impossible."

She added, "Tom Morello said the greatest thing, and I use this all the time. He said, 'I did not give up my First Amendment rights when I picked up my guitar. I did not set down the First Amendment, because I'm a citizen and I care about what's happening in my country.'"

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The issue of candidates using copyrighted songs to promote their campaigns has become particularly heated in the era of President Donald Trump, as artists including R.E.M., The Rolling Stones, Adele, Rihanna, Pharrell Williams and Tom Petty (through his estate) have expressed outrage and even issued cease-and-desist orders against his campaign over its use of their music at events. On Aug. 4, Neil Young filed a lawsuit against the campaign for playing his music at rallies, saying his songs "Rockin' in the Free World" and "Devil's Sidewalk" have been used "for a divisive, un-American campaign of ignorance and hate.” Earlier this month, Eddy Grant also sued the campaign over its use of his song "Electric Avenue" in a campaign video posted to Twitter.

Cash said that the protest songs created by Woody Guthrie, Mavis Staples, Nina Simone and more provide a critical lens through which to view our current political and social climate.

"All of those people and those songs are critical right now," Cash said. "This is what art is about. It's partly to make you uncomfortable and to make you think."

Also during the conversation, Cash said she has been enjoying spending time at home during the pandemic. While she misses performing in front of a live audience, she said she had been "burnt out from being on the road."

"I'm not 25 anymore," Cash said. "It's really grueling. I love the relationship with the audience, but as Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones said, 'It's the other 22 hours that start killing you."

Just because she’s been home doesn’t mean Cash has been resting on her laurels. "It's not that I haven't been working," Cash added. "I've been working a lot and honestly I missed the audiences, but I'm loving being at home."

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, Cash said she has written "quite a few songs," as well as a couple of essays for The Atlantic and one for the upcoming Oxford American music issue. She has additionally participated in charity fundraisers to raise money for musicians, venues and healthcare workers. She previously discussed protest music on an episode of the virtual series Live with Carnegie Hall in June.