In recent months, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) has sued at least twenty six restaurants around the country for copyright infringement. The claims stem from the restaurants' playing of music without obtaining a license from the performing rights organization. Before long, theatres and other performance venues may also be targets.
ASCAP and its competitor BMI (Broadcast Music International) are the two largest American performing rights societies, charged with collecting royalties for songwrites and publishers for “public performances” of songs in their respective catalogs. ASCAP's catalog boasts over 8 Million Songs. a public performance occurs whenever a song is played on the radio, television, or the internet, and most performances (live or recorded) of music in public spaces, such as restaurants, nightclubs and theatres
[Note: Theatres routinely pay play publishers for the right to perform plays and musicals on their stages, but the licenses granted typically cover only those works which are an integral part of the play in question. (so-called “grand performance rights“). If, however, the venue uses additional music pre- or post-show, or fills scene changes and intermissions with songs not written specifically for the play, a so-called “small rights” public-performance license will also be required.]
Both ASCAP and BMI employ investigators to roam the country identifying new restaurants, bars, theme parks or other establishments where music is used. Venue owners are required to purchase a license, typically for a single annual fee based on the size, seating capacity and type of venue.
While many businesses aren't aware of these rules, entertainment attorneys say that suits to enforce these licensing requirements are increasingly common, and ASCAP's senior vice-president Vincent Candilora is quoted in the Seattle Times as saying that the recent lawsuits are intended to spread the word that performing such music without permission is a federal offense.
Although the societies have targetted bars, restaurants and nightclubs, any business can be the target of enforcement actions. Theatres, cabarets and other performance venues are especially succeptible to lawsuits of this type. Nowadays, even shopkeepers play music in their establishments to entertain customers and set a mood. If unlicensed, doing so can result in a costly lawsuit.
New and established business owners should consider carefully how music is used on their premises and obtain the necessary licenses.