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Bars and Restaurants Need to Be Sure to Pay License Fees to Play Music in Their Establishments

ASCAP files suit against 13 bars and restaurants

Did you know that every public establishment, including bars and restaurants, must obtain licenses to have live or recorded music played in their businesses? The licenses are not difficult to get, but if you don’t pay for them you can be sued for the unauthorized playing of music in your establishment. Recently, ASCAP (American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers), a performing rights society that manages the public performance rights for its members, sued thirteen bars and restaurants around the country for not paying for its license.

What is the public performance right and license?

Copyright law protects the right of public performance of music. This means that no copyright-protected recordings (and that’s basically all music that people listen to) can be publicly played without a license. This “public performance” right covers a huge variety of uses of music: live performances, jukeboxes, radio play, music played overhead in a grocery store, and generally anywhere that music is played in a place open to the public.

However, the good news is that the ability to play nearly all recorded music in a public establishment can be obtained by securing just a couple of blanket licenses from the major performing rights organizations (PROs). PROs were formed to simplify the process of obtaining public performance licenses and music availability would not be same without them. There are several PROs, but ASCAP and BMI are the biggest ones and the most important from which to obtain licenses.

The PROs work by signing up artists that allow the PRO to license their entire catalog and then offer blanket licenses to venues and stations to play their music publicly. The PROs collect license fees from licensees, utilize tracking and proprietary algorithms to determine how much their artists’ songs are played, and then pay the artists accordingly. As shown by the ASCAP lawsuits, the PROs will also use aggressive tactics to ensure that no establishments are playing music publicly with a license in place.

Clearing up a common misconception – buying a download or paying for a streaming service does not give you rights to public performance

It’s worth noting that contrary to popular belief, even if you buy music or pay to stream music on Apple Music or Spotify you do not actually own the rights to a song. Instead you merely purchased a license to listen to the song for personal use. The same goes for CDs and vinyl - personal use only.

Think of copyright protection as a “bundle of sticks” with each stick representing a different right. All of these rights, such as the right to sell downloads, the right to license a song use in a movie, the right of public performance, etc., are dealt with differently and importantly, a license to one right does not mean you have rights to any of the others.

If you run a bar or restaurant and want to play music in your venue make sure you obtain the right licenses  

The best course of action for an owner of a restaurant or bar is to obtain the proper licenses needed to play music in the establishment. Different PROs represent different artists so you could potentially get multiple lawsuits from different organizations if you are not following the copyright laws. The last thing a new or established business needs is a time consuming and potentially pocket burning lawsuit from a performancerights organization.  

Contact Scott Brown at 614-340-0011 if you have any questions about copyright licensing or the public performance right license.