Legal & Ethical Obligations of Musical Content Production & Distribution Companies

Legal Obligations

The music industry has some legal obligations when it comes to releasing violent, hateful, or sexually based content. The first amendment protects free speech (with limitations) therefore enabling them to release whatever content they desire. In the United States people are allowed to say what they want without fear of being arrested or censored. The only types of speech that are excluded from first amendment protection are: obscenity, fighting words, defamation, child pornography, perjury, blackmail, threats, “incitement of imminent lawless action, and solicitations to commit crimes.”[i] The determination of what classifies these subject matters as unprotected have been decided by the courts and reasonable tests have been derived to evaluate and control this particular kind of content. Below is a brief overview the Miller v. California case and the obscenity test derived from it, which help in determining what is not protected under the first amendment.


This case centered on an individual, Marvin Miller, distributing unsolicited pornographic, mail order, adult material. Miller lost the case, which set precedent for determining what is and isn’t obscene. A three pronged test was established to establish what is considered to be obscene. All three parts of this test must be violated in order to be convicted for obscenity; (1) the average person must find it offensive (as defined by community standards), (2) the work must depict or describe sexual content or excretory functions, and (3) the work must lack serious artistic, literary, political, or scientific value.

Although record companies are not legally obligated to do this, they comply with rating and stickering standards for their mature material. In 1985, Tipper Gore, wanting to take the, “element of surprise out of buying an album,”[ii] created the Parents Music Resource Center, so that the public was made aware of explicit and mature content. By stickering all of their products with this notice, labels are meeting their ethical obligations to the public by informing them about the content. If the public decides to purchase it and then rationalizes the terrorism of others because of it, that is their decision—the label fulfilled their ethical duties by warning them.

Ethical Obligations

Record companies do not have an ethical obligation to control the violent, hateful, or sexual content of the products they release because they are businesses. In business, the goal is to make as much money as possible. In this particular case if the music, whose lyrical content consists of the subjects mentioned above, is in demand and sells well, companies should release it (without regard to the subject matter). If an individual in upper legel management takes issue with the lyrical content, it is most likely that in a large company (like Sony, Universal Music Group, EMI, and Warner Music Group) his ethical objections to releasing the music will fall on deaf ears (because the company is more concerned about their bottom line). Aside from that, with all of the downsizing that has recently occurred, it is also possible that an individual who objects to the release of that material will get fired.

For smaller indie labels, the owner might ultimately decide what to distribute and release under his company’s name, rather than putting that duty into another’s hands. In this case, if the owner decides that the lyrical content conflicts with his own personal ethics (and he doesn’t care about his company’s bottom line as much as he does about his own perceived personal ethical obligations) he may choose not to release the material (or even sign the group creating the material). The fact is the recorded music industry is a business and their goals of generating the most revenue possible trumps ethical obligations any day in their minds.

The recorded music industry should, however, be aware of what’s going on with national and regional tragedies but they’re have been no empirical, “studies that have documented a cause-and-effect relationship between violent or sexually explicit lyrics and adverse behavioral effects.”[iii] Unfortunately, when tragedy occurs, grieving individuals want explanations as of to why it occurred. When these individuals can not accept or rationalize what has happened, they seek to blame someone else (due to guilt, denial, and shock). They’re looking for a scapegoat and unfortunately the majority of the time that scapegoat happens to be the recorded music industry.

The fact is that these tragedies occur because of biological and environmental factors, which determine the individual’s behavior. Record labels can not reasonably predict what some sociopath or unstable individual’s reaction to their music will be. They can’t control the behavior of others and therefore shouldn’t feel like it’s their fault or be blamed for releasing these types of music to society.

Charles Manson blamed The Beatles’ music for his ordering the murders of many individuals. It was derived from his belief of an impending intense race war that he thought The Beatles affirmed through their music. Charles Manson’s actions were not derived from listening to The Beatles. They were derived from his having anti-social personality disorder, “which is the clinical term for sociopath or psychopath.”[iv] Music did not cause his actions; his mental health issues did.

There have been many songs (like Blondie’s ‘One Way Or Another,’ The Police’s ‘Every Breath You Take,’  and Cheap Trick’s ‘I Want You To Want Me,’)  that at first glance seem about loving someone else and longing to be with them but, when the lyrical content is analyzed the songs are really stalker anthems. But, the public desired these tracks and no real harm was caused from their distribution. Below are select excerpts from each of the songs.

One Way Or Another Lyrics[v]

I will drive past your house/ And if the lights are all down/ I’ll see who’s around … One way or another I’m gonna find ya/ I’m gonna getcha getcha getcha getcha…One day, maybe next week/ I’m gonna meetcha, I’ll meetcha…And if the lights are all out/ I’ll follow your bus downtown/ See who’s hanging out…I’ll walk down the mall/ Stand over by the wall/ Where I can see it all/ Find out who ya call/ Lead you to the supermarket checkout/ Some specials and rat food/ get lost in the crowd


Every Breath You Take Lyrics[vi]

Every breath you take/ Every move you make/ Every bond you break/ Every step you take/ I’ll be watching you…Every single day/ Every word you say/ Every game you play/Every night you stay/ I’ll be watching you


I Want You To Want Me Lyrics[vii]

I want you to want me./ I need you to need me./ I’d love you to love me./ I’m beggin’ you to beg me.

In situations where labels are publically scrutinized for the release of the material and get blamed for the tragedy, they must attempt to control the negative press (so they don’t get boycotted and lose revenue) by doing PR damage control. They must release some sort of statement that expresses their condolences and sympathies for the victims of the tragedy, while at the same time stating that they aren’t responsible for the actions of an individual who misinterpreted the lyrical content. Yes, labels should be aware of the potential reactions to the music they release and sympathize with individuals affected by the tragedy but the music they released did not impose duress on anyone that led to them committing a heinous crime. It is because of the fact that people choose to purchase and listen to the materials distributed by the labels, that labels are not responsible for the actions of their consumers. A well known quote by Denis Leary (noted below) appropriately illustrates the ridiculousness of the music industry being blamed for tragedies.

“Explain it to me. Heavy metal bands on trial because kids commit suicide, what is that about? Judas Priest on trial because my kid bought the records, and he listened to the lyrics, and he go into Satan… ALLALALALALALLALA! Well that’s great. That sets a legal precedent. Does that mean I can sue Dan Fogelberg for making me into a pussy in the mid ’70s, is that possible, HUH?”[viii]

[i]What Types of Speech Are Not Protected By The First Amendment? 9 May 2010. First Amendment Center. 9 May 2010. <>.

[ii] Parents Music Resource Center. 2 May 2010. Wikipedia. 9 May 2010. <>.

[iii] Effects of Music on Human Behavior. 12 June 2006.  9 May 2010. <>.

[iv] Debunking Myths Surrounding Charles Manson. 9 May 2006. The Framing Business: Writings of Gavin C. Schmitt. 9 May 2010. <>.

[v] One Way Or Another Lyrics by Blondie. 1 Jan. 2010. Pop Culture Madness. 9 May 2010. <>.

[vi] Every Breath You Take Lyrics by The Police. 1 Jan. 2010. Pop Culture Madness. 9 May 2010. <>.

[vii] I Want You to Want Me Lyrics by Cheap Trick. 1 Jan 2010. Pop Culture Madness. 9 May 2010. <>.

[viii] Memorable Quotes For No Cure For Cancer. 1 Jan. 1992. IMDb. 9 May 2010. <>.