24 October 2022
“Nothin’ can stop me”: Copyright licences, M People, and the Conservative Party Conference
By Thomas G. C. Hood
The unauthorised use of pop music tracks at political party conferences has become a staple of news reporting during conference season in the UK. This September, Prime Minister Liz Truss decided to use the music of M People’s hit ‘Moving on Up’ to walk on stage prior to giving her speech to the Conservative Party Conference. Michael Pickering, a co-writer and founder of the group, took to Twitter to express his anger prior to the Prime Minister concluding her speech, stating “No permission given for that we’re very angry.” [i] However, for M People and Pickering, most venues that host political conferences are covered by what is known as ‘TheMusicLicence’, provided by PRS/PPL. This licence allows venues “and the events they host to make use of pretty much any music – the politicians are covered copyright-wise, and all the musicians can do is moan after the fact.”[ii] This may appear that any venue hosting any group, no matter their political persuasion, can utilise music even if the musician objects to its use.
However, TheMusicLicence does have some exceptions within it arising from the Terms and Conditions. Clause 20.10 states that “any Playing or Performance of Music as an introduction to, during or otherwise closely connected with the presentation of any political announcement, including keynote speeches during political party conferences and campaigns (unless You have obtained in advance the written permission of all relevant rights holders).” [iii] Written permission is key to use of a music track by a politician. However, with musicians signing over significant rights to big commercial labels, it is uncertain whether or not such permission was given for the use of the M People track. What is incredible in this circumstance is that senior members of Liz Truss’ team were unable to confirm whether such permission was given, with the Independent reporting that her “press secretary was unable to say whether the party had asked for permission, adding: ‘I don’t have detailed knowledge of how the licencing of this stuff works.” [iv]
Presuming that permission had been given, it is very difficult for M People to make a claim against the Conservative Party. Musicians often sign away a lot of rights to their representative labels through an assignment of copyright. These assignments give a lot of power over to a commercial label in order to give them the ability to promote and sell the track. In return the musician receives royalties expressly defined in the assignment. Even where the copyright is assigned, moral rights can still subsist with the original copyright owner. These rights give power to a copyright owner to stop, for example, derogatory treatment of their work. [v] The issue with moral rights is that they “aren’t particularly strong under the UK copyright system”. [vi] However, this issue is likely not to be applicable: assignments or other contractual documents between a musician and a label often include a waiver of what are known as moral rights. Therefore, M People likely have no basis to take a claim against the Conservatives as they likely do not own the copyright and also most likely waived their moral rights. Even if permission was not granted to use the track, the assignment would mean that label would be responsible for engaging with the Conservative Party to rectify the situation.
So where does this leave M People and other musicians? The lesson to take from this recent incarnation of politicians using pop star music is that legitimate use of music tracks depends on two key factors; firstly, what the musician signs away when they commercialise their work and what kind of agreements the label that now has significant rights in the track enters into. While musicians continue to rely on big labels who commercialise tracks without concern for the associations derived from who uses them, musicians will struggle to challenge use of their tracks by people they politically disagree with. Therefore, just as M People decided, the best thing a musician can do is ask their management “to ensure [their track is] not to be used again by the [political] party.” [vii] In the alternative, musicians just have to wait and see whether or not they will be next year’s target of choice for the next Conservative Prime Minister’s speech.