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Royalties and Licenses for Public Performance of Music


Let’s say that you have a business, and you think it would be a good idea to have some music in the background. You’re not a concert hall, and you’re not selling music—you just want to create a nice environment for your customers. You put on some music over your speakers, but before you know it you are hit with a copyright infringement claim. How can this be?

You Need a License

It is because copyrighted music requires that you pay royalties anytime the music is played in public.

Public doesn’t mean it has to be a public performance; anything and anywhere that a large crowd of people gather—such as a store, doctors office, convention hall. bar, or restaurant-qualifies as public, and thus, must pay royalties for using the music that is going through the speakers.

It doesn’t matter that you aren’t making money directly off of, or from the music itself.

There is an exemption for transmitting radio or television broadcasts, so long as there is no charge for accessing the broadcasts, for venues that are small enough to qualify for the exemption. Additionally, some charitable functions can use music without paying royalties, so long as there is no admission charge to the event and the organization and so long as the organization isn’t directly profiting from the music or broadcast.

Who is Liable?

Technically, everybody who infringes on music is liable—the venue or establishment as well as any live band or performer—but practically, when licensing companies seek damages for unpaid royalties, they go after the values and establishments.

Saying that you told the performer to only perform work that is not copyrighted, or that the performer performed unauthorized music without your permission generally are unsuccessful defenses.

Getting a License

To get the proper license, venues should get a blanket license from the two major licensing agencies, ASCAP and BMI—be aware that a license from one, doesn’t necessarily give you the right to play music from the other.

These agencies handle the royalties and licenses for artists—you don’t contact Bruce Springsteen to play “Born in the USA” in your bar, you work with ASCAP or BMI, pay them, and they handle getting your payment (or part of it) to Bruce Springsteen.

Licenses aren’t super expensive, but do vary depending on the business that is getting the license.

You do not need a license to play music or videos in the public domain, and you do have the option of negotiating with the intellectual property owner individually.

How WIll They Know?

The licensing agencies are known to send live, human investigators into venues, to see what they can hear—if they hear a song on the speakers, or a guitarist on stage, playing music in their catalog, and your business doesn’t have  a license, you can expect a cease and desist letter, and possibly, a demand for infringement damages.

Call our West Palm Beach business litigation lawyers for any infringement problems or claims you may have at Pike & Lustig today for help and advice.




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