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Screenshot of YouTube of three men and one woman stand by a bbq grill
Participants in the Greens' party election campaign videoImage: YouTube/BÜNDNIS 90/DIE GRÜNEN

Musical faux pas in German election campaigns

Annabelle Steffes-Halmer
September 3, 2021

Music is supposed to motivate, but Germany's political parties have also faced problems with their choice of songs at rallies on the campaign trail. What are the rules on copyright?


For a long time, the campaign for Germany's parliamentary vote on September 26 was unusually quiet in terms of music.

At least until the Green Party posted a video of people of all ages singing a new version of a 19th-century German folk song, "Kein schöner Land in dieser Zeit" (No country more beautiful in this time). The new lyrics evoke, for instance, a "connection to roads, buses and trains, and of course wireless internet access."

Whether or not people liked the Greens' new interpretation of the song first published in 1840, it gave the party just what it wanted — a great deal of attention. The video has been viewed more than 600,000 times on YouTube to date, and around 1.5 million times on Twitter.

Music evokes emotions

Music inspires and motivates people. It can create a sense of community, identity or belonging. Politicians know this all too well, so it's not unusual for them to fall back on popular tunes come election campaign time.

That doesn't always go down well with voters or with the musicians who wrote the songs.

Former US President Donald Trump in particular ran into problems with his picks, but it hasn't always been smooth sailing for German parties and politicians, either.

In 2005, the Rolling Stones were not happy that their song "Angie" had become the unofficial campaign anthem for the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. A spokesman for the band said they were disappointed not to have been asked beforehand.

Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones performs with band members Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Ronnie Wood
Merkel's party adopted 'Angie' for their 2005 campaign, even though lyrics say, 'But ain't it time we said goodbye?'Image: Reuters/M. Anzuoni

The German band Die Toten Hosen did not want the Christian Democratic party (CDU) to use their hit song "Tage wie diese" (Days like these) in the 2013 election campaign.

The party gave in and dropped the song at rallies — but, with the band's permission, played it to celebrate their victory on election night. As the band's frontman Campino said in an interview with NDR broadcaster back then, the song was, after all, meant "for those kinds of moments, when you want to party."

GEMA performance rights organization

According to German regulations, persons who "write a piece of music may decide who uses that piece of music, but often it is not necessary to obtain individual permission in the first place, because the works can be used by the collecting societies," according to Fabian Rack, a German lawyer specialized in copyright.

In Germany, that is up to the collecting and performance rights organization, GEMA. To play music publicly, every event organizer or bar owner pays fees to the organization. That automatically gives them the permission to use the works of the artists represented by GEMA, which then redistributes the funds to the musicians.

Tote Hosen frontman Campino performing
Tote Hosen frontman Campino was OK with their song being used to celebrate, but not for a campaignImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Kahnert

Basically, political parties can use any piece of music they want for their election campaign, as long as the works are licensed by GEMA. They only need permission from the authors if they want to use a song for an election campaign video.

It is difficult in cases where songs are played again and again, as anthems or theme songs, because voters might get the impression that the musicians support the respective party. That, in turn, could violate the author's moral rights. "Copyright is not only a commercial right that makes my music a commercial good, but the artists also have a personal moral connection to their work," Rack told DW. "Even if you've obtained a GEMA license, you can't use the music in a distorting context."

Damaging to the artist's reputation

The far-right NPD faced just that issue in court when in 2015, German pop singer Helene Fischer filed a lawsuit against the party for using her hit "Atemlos durch die Nacht" (Breathless through the night) — and won.

Helene Fischer in a blue sparkly suit playing drums.
German star Helene Fischer brought the NPD to court for using her most famous songImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Steffen

The Thuringian Higher Regional Court considered it possible that Fischer's reputation could be damaged if a party classified as anti-constitutional by the Federal Constitutional Court used her music.

The court ruled that it is the artist's right to decide whether to present herself as apolitical. Also, the court added, Fischer had made it clear that she in no way shared the views and attitudes of the NPD.

The German band Wir sind Helden also took action against the NPD for the use of their song "Gekommen, um zu bleiben" (Came to stay), as did Die Höhner for "Wenn nicht jetzt, wann dann" (When, if not now). In both cases, a court decided in the band's favor.

Fabian Rack, man leaning on wall looks into camera
Fabian Rack specializes in copyright lawImage: Anja Limbrunner

In 2016, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party played no music at all in its election campaign video following a copyright lawsuit. Asking the French electro-swing band Caravan Palace for use of the song "Lone Digger" had slipped the party's mind. The AfD did not withdraw the video, but instead muted the soundtrack. The video ran without music, as no other band or artist wanted to provide the party with a song either.

No matter the political leaning, using well-known pop and rock songs can be a tricky business.

As a result, parties increasingly commission songs for their election campaigns.

The CDU's last election song was penned by Leslie Mandoki, a producer who has worked with Phil Collins, among others. "An jedem neuen Tag" (On every new Day) was not successful, neither was the Social Democrats' (SPD) attempt at the time to score points with "Wir sind zuhaus" (We are at Home) by the band Dirty Red Carpet.

With the exception of the Greens, the major parties refrained from using popular songs in this year's election campaign. That may not sound inspiring, but at least it is not controversial. The Greens don't need to worry about permission for the song they chose this year, either, as copyright expires after 70 years.

This article has been translated from German.

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