Skip to comments.Jackson Browne Versus John McCain: An Empty Suit
Posted on 12/13/2008 4:56:52 AM PST by Kaslin
Back in the days when a presidential candidate hired someone to write a campaign theme song, the result usually was a silly, innocuous ditty whose significance was far more historical than artistic. In our enlightened age, by contrast, a candidate is now more likely to pluck a familiar song from the public domain in order to turn on the multitudes. The result, regrettably, can be a silly, innocuous lawsuit the implications of which go well beyond elections.
That brings us to one of the more intriguing political sidelights of 2008. This past August, singer-songwriter Jackson Browne sued Senator John McCain for using one of his songs, Running on Empty, as presidential campaign fodder. Browne was highly upset that a portion of the song, long an FM staple first released in 1977, made its way into a McCain television ad that criticized the energy plan of his opponent, Barack Obama.
McCain, as if we needed any reminder, lost the election. But as befitting of a man who never quits, hes determined not to lose in court. Represented by the blue-chip Los Angeles litigation firm of Spillane Shaeffer Aronoff Bandlow, McCain about two weeks later filed two separate motions in federal court against Browne. I confess to having little emotion invested in this battle. But whether or not the case goes to trial, heres hoping for a McCain victory.
Truth to tell, Ive never gotten all that worked up over Jackson Brownes music. Granted, he knows how to construct a song and has a way of attracting first-rate musicians like lap-steel guitar virtuoso David Lindley. But his recordings usually come off as too inhibited for me to uncork a bottle of wine and dream dark other-worldly thoughts. His romanticism isnt as convincing as that of Van Morrison or for that matter, Jim Morrison. Well, theres no accounting for taste.
More apropos to the issue at hand, Browne is a vocal politician of the Left. Much as I dont share his views, politics alone isnt normally a deal breaker for me. Every artist has a point of view or an agenda, to use a cliché of todays fevered pundits. Browne long has made clear his sympathies lie with Green Party-style progressivism. Hes headlined or participated in benefit concerts for presidential campaigns of Ralph Nader (2000), John Kerry (2004) and John Edwards (2008). After Edwards flamed out, he endorsed Barack Obama.
The new lawsuit makes it awfully hard to put art before politics. For one thing, Brownes action reeks of vindictiveness. His man won and he still wont drop it. Second and more importantly, a victory would set a bad legal precedent.
Browne argues that the McCain campaign violated the Lanham Act, formally known as the Trademark Act of 1946. That law bars false association or endorsement in the use of someone elses copyrighted material for advertising purposes. It also sets forth remedies. Browne always has had an ironclad policy of not allowing his songs to be used for advertisements. So when his management this summer began receiving e-mails from fans angered and perplexed as to why their hero had sold out to the forces of evil, Browne likewise pitched a fit and got himself a lawyer. Within days, he filed suit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles alleging that the Republican Party, its Ohio affiliate (which produced the ad), and McCain himself illegally had infringed upon his copyright and created the false impression of an endorsement.
The Arizona senator, say Browne and his lawyer, is a lawbreaker. When youre a senator, or youre elected president, you take an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, said Brownes lawyer, Larry Iser. Copyright derives directly from the Constitution. As if this sanctimonious civics lesson werent enough, Browne and Iser demanded damages in excess of $1 million and a formal apology from McCain and the GOP to the American people.
The McCain campaign initially responded by disassociating itself from the ad. Under pressure, the Ohio Republican Party stopped running the commercial and even pulled it from YouTube. But after the election, Browne hadnt dropped his suit. This time McCain came for a showdown, guns blazing, with a pair of legal actions of his own.
The first lawsuit is a motion to dismiss. McCains attorney, Lincoln Bandlow, argues that the lifting of a snippet of the song for political advertising constituted fair use. That is, it met the standard four-part test that the courts apply in determining the legality of borrowing copyrighted material without securing permission: 1) the works purpose and character (McCain argues the ad was neither commercial nor transformative); 2) the works nature (its a more than 30-year-old song, and one whose title has become an everyday expression); 3) the amount and substantiality of the works use (the commercial only used the title phrase); and 4) the effect of the works use (rather than damage the songs commercial potential, say the defendants, the campaign ad will enhance it). McCain also is arguing that the Lanham Act pertains only to commercial rather than political speech.
McCains second suit amounts to an anti-SLAPP motion. SLAPP is an acronym for Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation. Its become a common tool for corporations who want to limit their critics free speech. The purpose of a SLAPP action isnt so much to win in court as it is to stretch out the litigation process to frustrate the target into ceasing public criticism. Short of a gun to the head, writes New York State Supreme Court Judge J. Nicholas Colabella, a greater threat to First Amendment expression can scarcely be imagined. As Jackson Brownes suit demonstrates, SLAPP is a game that anti-corporate types can play, too. Magnifying the problem is that federal SLAPP actions operate under a notice pleading doctrine, which requires only that the plaintiff (i.e., Browne) include a brief listing of claims asserted. In other words, Jackson Browne can sue first and worry about discovery later. So far, McCain only seeks to recover attorneys fees and costs.
Its pretty hard to sympathize with Browne. In addition to being on shaky legal ground, the man needs anger management lessons. Typically, when the holder of a copyright perceives an infringement upon intellectual property, that person or organization first brings the matter to the attention of the apparent violator. A lawsuit is a last resort, filed only after the violator, given ample time, fails either to change the content or offer monetary compensation. Its rare when someone comes out of the blue at warp speed with a lawsuit. At least, sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart were satisfied to publicly denounce Sarah Palins use of the bands 1977 hit, Barracuda, as a vice-presidential campaign theme song. Then again, these harpies Up Yours open letter to John McCain over the song renders Jackson Browne cuddly by comparison.
The Browne case isnt the first time a popular musician has gone to court alleging voice misappropriation. Perhaps the best-known instance occurred in the realm of commerce, not politics. Back in November 1988, Tom Waits sued Frito-Lay and its advertising agency, Tracy-Locke, under the Lanham Act and California law, claiming his song, Step Right Up, was misused to promote Salsa Rio Doritos. Tracy-Locke had hired singer Stephen Carter to do a Waits-like cover version for a radio commercial that aired on more than 250 stations nationwide. A jury ruled in favor of Waits, awarding him $2.6 million, a decision upheld by a federal appeals court. Waits argued that Carters voice bore such an uncanny resemblance to his own that audiences might get the impression he (Waits) was endorsing the product.
Defining fair use in most cases isnt easy. There are many factors to consider in determining whether a political or product campaign has infringed upon someone elses copyrighted work. But as a general rule, its better to err on the side of free speech. I can think of at least a dozen common expressions that began in the form of lines in episodes of Seinfeld and The Simpsons. And I can cite dozens of songs released since the mid 1980s that have sampled clips of other songs or spoken words. Imagine the legal chaos if the holders of intellectual property in every instance filed suit.
In the meantime, political candidates might consider paying songwriters to write original material. It could be a lot cheaper in the long run.
Uh-oh... watch out for The Eagles.
Jackson Browne-dried out olde hag!
Jackson Browne-dried out olde hag!
I seem to recall Jackson Browne having had some sort of ‘domestic altercation’ with Darryl Hannah...
Yes, this fine California Whine (as I heard him called years ago in Stereo Review) was dotting her "i's", if not crossing her "t's".
Seeing that recent picture of he and his friends has me thinking, "Doctor my eyes..."
Definitely got that “Old Lesbian” thing going on...
Yes,I recall having heard of at least one incident in which Browne used some celebrity of the female persuasion as a punching bag.
And regarding the headline....don't we have *two* empty suits involved here?
It sounds like, vacation-land for ‘Lawyers in Love’.
"Jackson Browne appeared in September 2008 on the The Colbert Report. He closed the show performing his new song about visiting Cuba. He's also suing John McCain's campaign for using his music without permission nor license. Listen to his terrific new melodic ballad I'm going down to Cuba."
‘Ol Jackson looks kinda worn out. Must be back into the nose candy.
Jackson Browne should talk...his first wife killed herself (it must have been hell being married to him) and he beat up Darryl Hannah. This guy is an sob of the first order.
I've never been able to listen to him since.
John Mellencamp said, back when he was "Johnny Cougar," that "we recorded our new album in 4 days. It takes Jackson Browne that long to tune his guitar."
Always got a kick out of that though, really, they're both rank dweebs, aren't they?
Brown is a dweeb, it says in the bible to first approach those who have done you wrong before going to a public counsel. I suspect he never read the bible, nor has a lot of these musical has been stars that are on the wrong sides of the issues today.
McCain however was no better in his judgment. A little homework would have exposed Brown for he pinko that he is, why couldn’t McCain’s people found a better spokes singer for their campaign? IF one is looking for a seasoned musician that has been around in public domain who’s songs are a part of American vernacular, why not choose from the following professed Conservatives?
Ted Nugent, Marie Osmond, Ricky Skaggs, Loretta Lynn, Pat Boone, Johnny Ramone, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Charlie Daniels, ZZ Top, Foghat.... and many others...
There are a lot of contemporary artists too,,, McCain just dropped the ball on this, along with choosing Hart’s Barracuda song, there is no excuse for a campaign not doing its homework and picking Conservative musicians for their spoke singers and theme songs,
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