Opinion

Trump Shamelessly Breaks Promise, Obviously Infringes on Copyright by Playing ‘Purple Rain’ at Rally

Of all the things to inspire outrage at a #MAGA rally, the campaign’s choice of music might not be the obvious list-topper. Stick with me, though, because the Trump people just tried to sneak some shady nonsense past Prince’s estate.

At a Minneapolis campaign rally Thursday night, Trump’s campaign people chose to play Prince’s “Purple Rain.”

Apparently, the campaign people did just enough research to know that Prince is a Minneapolis hometown hero, but not enough to notice the rather obvious clash in personal branding with POTUS.

Trump rallies aren’t really built on nuanced choices, though, and I’m guessing Trump himself has never listened to “Purple Rain” in his life.

Picturing the work of a brilliant musical mind reverberating off the walls of a MAGA rally makes me want to shower, but what’s grosser is that the campaign didn’t seek a license to play the song at the rally.  Requiring a person to license the right   play a recording of a copyrighted song is basically the whole point of copyright law. Under 17 U.S. Code § 106, the artist retains exclusive rights in copyrighted works, specifically “in the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.”

You might be tempted to think that failure to obtain license to play “Purple Rain” could have been the result of mere oversight. I mean who really remembers all of those pesky copyright obligations? Well, people who produce campaign rallies, for starters. These people knew they needed permission, they knew they’d never get permission, so they just didn’t ask.

And when I say they knew they needed permission, I don’t mean it in some amorphous, academic way. I mean these specific people knew they weren’t supposed to use that specific song at campaign events. That’s because they already tried it once, just last year.  The campaign used “Purple Rain” without permission, and the Prince Estate issued a formal complaint — a fact that the estate helpfully pointed out after the campaign did the same thing again.

Last October, Trump lawyer Megan Newton sent a letter to the Prince Estate’s lawyers. In it, Newton (likely knowing that it wouldn’t be a great idea to escalate the conflict), promised never to use “Purple Rain” or any other Prince music at future Trump events.

“The Campaign [will] refrain from using Prince’s ‘Purple Rain,’ or any other Prince music, in connection with Campaign rallies or other Campaign events,”  Newton wrote. “Without admitting liability, and to avoid any future dispute, we write to confirm that the Campaign will not use Prince’s music in connection with its activities going forward.” I guess maybe “going forward” only meant for less than a year.

If a sitting president and his campaign’s blatant disregard for federal statutory law isn’t vile enough, Ms. Newton’s letter actually makes it way worse. Through counsel, Trump agreed not to use Prince’s music. Certainly, Newton’s letter wasn’t a contract (contracts require mutual consideration, and agreeing to refrain from doing something that you are already legally prohibited from doing doesn’t fit the definition), but there was still a promise. And that promise was simple, clear, and public. It also wasn’t worth the paper on which it was printed.

Of course, exactly none of this is surprising. Campaign staff has already had a history of bad behavior regarding artists. There was that time they bragged that Elton John would perform at Trump’s inauguration (not true). Then there were the times Trump tried to be funny and infringed on HBO’s and Nickelback’s copyrights. Bottom line: if exploiting an artist has potential to resonate with Trump’s supporters, neither personal integrity, nor professional courtesy, nor force of law will be an impediment.

[image via Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images]

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos

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