When Vivek Ramaswamy decided to rap along to Eminem’s 2002 hit song “Lose Yourself” at the Iowa State Fair in mid-August, he probably didn’t imagine that he would soon find himself at the sharp end of one of his own heroes’ contempt–and the threat of legal action.
But that’s exactly what happened. Little more than a week later, Slim Shady contacted Broadcast Music, Inc.(BMI), a clearinghouse that manages the rights to millions of songs in the US and abroad, asking them to intervene on his behalf. BMI did so, sending a cease-and-desist letter to Ramaswamy’s campaign counsel on August 23rd requiring the campaign and Ramaswamy personally to stop using Eminem’s music in the campaign. In response, Ramaswamy said on MSNBC that although he was disappointed in the rapper’s request, he would abide by it–but also took aim at Eminem’s “establishment” stance.
But is Marshall B. Mathers III’s point of view really that far over the line, or is Slim Shady just spitting sour grapes? Let’s take a look at the complexities of licensing and using music on the campaign trail to get a better idea of what’s going on!
Vivek Ramaswamy: Biotech mogul. Presidential Hopeful. Rapper?
The year before he entered Harvard University as an underclassman, Vivek Ramaswamy first heard Eminem’s underdog anthem, “Lose Yourself.” The song won an Oscar and two Grammys as part of the soundtrack to the rapper’s vanity piece about his emergence from hardscrabble roots in a trailer park to rap superstardom, 8 Mile. In doing so, it made history as the first rap song ever to get the Academy nod.
Ramaswamy quickly took Eminem as a role model, going so far as to adopt the persona “Da Vek The Rapper” outside his regular student life.
Once he matriculated from Harvard, he became a prominent biotech investor while maintaining his love of rap, which he has showcased in public numerous times–- most recently, and potentially disastrously, during the Iowa State Fair this year.
Since the C&D was issued, though, Ramaswamy’s views on Eminem seem to have soured somewhat. From considering the rapper’s best-known work an essential walkout song, he has cooled toward Slim Shady, even going so far as to ask, “Will the real Slim Shady please stand up?” on X.com (formerly Twitter), in the wake of his campaign’s receipt of the C&D.
This is a reference not only to another Eminem hit, but also a direct taunt. Ramaswamy’s passion for all things Eminem stemmed from the fact that the ubiquitous rapper was not only an underdog, but the kind of underground agitator Ramaswamy wished to be. In Eminem’s C&D demand, Ramaswamy saw a sort of “selling out” to the “establishment,” which he clearly perceives as a betrayal of who Eminem is, where he came from, and the fans (including Ramaswamy) who supported him.
But does Eminem have the right to request Ramaswamy stop using Slim Shady’s work to rack up political capital? And if he does, should he?
Musicians Vs. Politicians
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that as long as there have been musicians and politicians, there have also been disagreements, squabbles, skirmishes, and outright scraps between them. A huge list of musicians and bands have spoken out against having their music used on the campaign trail or in advertising campaigns, for reasons that generally boil down to a fundamental disagreement of the musician’s message and beliefs versus the candidate’s. One notable example of this was Bruce Springsteen publicly criticizing Ronald Reagan for using his signature hit, “Born in the USA,” as a stump song in 1984. According to The Boss, the entire point of “Born in the USA” was to repudiate the very platform and thinking upon which the Reagan platform was built—and before it, the jingoistic saber-rattling surrounding the Vietnam War.
Since then, there have been many politicians who have used songs, both properly and illicitly (i.e. without appropriate licensing) without considering how the songs and the musicians and artists who created them aligned with their political perspectives and agendas. Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello notoriously clapped back against a would-be Twitter troll who, in 2020, made the ill-informed comment that “Another successful musician instantly becomes a political expert.” In a screencap posted to Instagram and captioned, “Like shooting fish in a barrel,” Morello retorted, “One does not have to be an honors grad in political science from Harvard University to recognise the unethical and inhumane nature of [the Trump] administration but well, I happen to be an honors grad in political science from Harvard University, so I can confirm that for you.”
Turns out many conservative politicians never realized when playing Rage songs that they were actually the machine Rage was raging against all along! It’s also worth noting that Morello and Ramaswamy happen to share the same alma mater.
That coincidence aside, it’s hardly unusual for musicians not to appreciate their works being taken out of context or used in ways they never intended. But can politicians do this and stay compliant with IP law?
The answer, as usual, is…maybe.
License to Thrill
We all know music can do many things. It can make us want to dance, cry, think back to our childhoods, reminisce over our first loves, fall in love again, feel anger and pain and want to break something with our bare hands in an effort to effect some kind of change in our world. It makes us feel, in a visceral way that few other art forms can.
Politicians know this as well. During the 2016 Presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders (I-VT) used “Turn Down for What?” by DJ Snake and Lil Jon to pump up the energy among those feeling the Bern on the campaign trail. Ronald Reagan used “Born in the USA” to similar effect. And of course, Ramaswamy’s use of “Lose Yourself” in Iowa was a perfect example of using music to achieve a desired effect and set an intentional tone.
However, they can’t just unilaterally decide they want to use a specific piece of music and that’s that.
Like any other form of intellectual property, music is copyrighted. Unlike most forms of IP, musical copyrights consist of two distinct parts: the written component (how the song is initially conceived and written by the writers) and the performance component (how the song is actually performed by a given person or group). For example, the song “Angel of the Morning” was initially written by Chip Taylor, and subsequently performed by a veritable Who’s Who of 20th-Century singers. But most fans of the song would agree that the definitive version was performed by Juice Newton in 1981. Thus, anyone wishing to license “Angel of the Morning” would have to seek out two separate licenses: one for the written matter that delineates how the song is performed, and one for the performance itself.
In the US, most of these licenses are managed by either BMI or ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers. Between these two entities, millions of songs are included in their catalogs for licensing ranging from live performances to karaoke to radio airplay–and political campaigning. Licensing is important to artists because it ensures them a steady stream of residual income from royalties on their work. Failure to obtain proper licenses before using or performing a work is a federal crime, which unfortunately a significant number of politicians seem to ignore. This, in turn, has led to any number of lawsuits against them by artists who allege that their work was never licensed properly or licensed by politicians whose views and agendas are at odds with the artists’ personal beliefs, creating a false appearance of the artists accepting the politicians’ points of view.
Of course, politicians could use works in the public domain and bypass the entire licensing issue altogether–mostly. They would still have to contend with performance licensing, unless they hired a live band to perform on the spot. But it’s hard to imagine Fur Elise offering the same visceral reaction to a modern crowd as “Lose Yourself,” which is, of course, the entire point of licensing the latter over the former. Some politicians might choose to bypass the issue altogether and just take their chances, on the premise that it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission. However, this wouldn’t be a great look for them; we expect our elected leaders to be more attuned to the law than the average citizen, and to be more rigorously interested in complying with the law. Where a politician decides artists don’t need to be paid for their work, it almost certainly serves as a weathercock to indicate how they think of other essential legal rights and the law in general!
The Bottom Line
In this case, the whole mess proved to be a tempest in a teacup. A politician used an artist’s work in a way the artist disagreed with. The artist took steps to warn the politician off. The politician agreed, albeit in a way which ironically threw a little shade at the artist in question. But the matter is, for all intents and purposes, settled for now.
The larger question is what happens if, or when, politicians decide they stand exempt from the laws surrounding royalty payments to artists specifically and IP law in general. Because if they’ll ignore this to get elected, we can only imagine with dread what they might get up to once they’re sworn into the most powerful offices on the planet–and the impact such disregard for the law might herald for our rights as Americans in the future.
ABOUT JOHN RIZVI, ESQ.
John Rizvi is a Registered and Board Certified Patent Attorney, Adjunct Professor of Intellectual Property Law, best-selling author, and featured speaker on topics of interest to inventors and entrepreneurs (including TEDx).
His books include “Escaping the Gray” and “Think and Grow Rich for Inventors” and have won critical acclaim including an endorsement from Kevin Harrington, one of the original sharks on the hit TV show – Shark Tank, responsible for the successful launch of over 500 products resulting in more than $5 billion in sales worldwide. You can learn more about Professor Rizvi and his patent law practice at www.ThePatentProfessor.com
Follow John Rizvi on Social Media