Last week, David Byrne filed a lawsuit against Florida Governor Charlie Crist for unauthorized use of the Talking Heads song “Road to Nowhere” in a campaign ad. Byrne, who is seeking $1 million in damages, has never licensed his songs for commercials and believes that the spot suggests he endorsed Crist’s candidacy.
The suit is the latest by a rocker seeking legal action over politicians’ unauthorized use of their music, including Foo Fighters, Van Halen, John Mellencamp and Jackson Browne — earlier today, Rolling Stone reported that a judge ruled Don Henley’s rights were violated by California Republican senatorial candidate Chuck DeVore. (Byrne’s lawyer, Lawrence Iser, also represented Browne when the songwriter sued John McCain for using his single “Running on Empty” in his 2008 run for president; the case has since been settled.) Rolling Stone checked in with Byrne today to talk about the suit and why is rep is worth more than a fat payday.
Why did you choose to file suit against Crist?
I’ve rightly or wrongly assumed that not licensing my songs or Talking Heads songs for use in advertisements is meaningful to both my own sense of integrity and my audience’s sense of who I am and what I stand for. The personal connection to a song is somewhat severed when it is used in an advertisement, at least that’s my belief. So when this song was used without permission, I was both deprived of income — income I have thus far denied myself — and what my songs represent was damaged. Anyone viewing the ad and hearing me singing would assume that I endorse Crist. There is no way I can now contact all those people and their friends and families and explain that that is not the case.
Why have you previously chosen not to license your songs for use in commercials?
It’s old fashioned, I know. Like other music fans, I form personal attachments to songs. I’ve watched others license songs and in my mind they lose some integrity as a result. One begins to mistrust them in other areas as well — even to the extent of not trusting the ultimate truth of their songs.
You arrived at the amount of a $1 million suit based on past offers to license your songs for a similar amount. Who have you been approached by?
I get a few offers a year for use of my songs in advertisements that my business people dangle in front of me. I’ve always turned them down. I have a sense of the numbers but don’t remember the names of all the companies. The lawyers have it all on record.
Have there been any talks of settling with Crist?
We tried hard to resolve this before filing the lawsuit. Our legal system has the problem that money often dictates whether someone files a lawsuit or not. It’s often assumed, rightly, by the powerful, that the little guy won’t spend the money to take it to court. I was left with no choice but to file this lawsuit. I’m sure we will continue to explore settlement options.
How much would you settle for?
What do you think my reputation is worth? Ah… maybe don’t answer that. But, to me, my reputation is something I’ve struggled to establish over a lifetime and Crist has associated me and my reputation with his campaign without my permission. It’s more than simply using my music without permission and without paying, though it’s that too.
Would you sue a candidate that you supported if they also used your music without permission?
Yes. This is not about politics or about Republicans, Democrats or Independents. This lawsuit is about maintaining control over the use of my identity and my music.