Whenever and wherever you go into a bar or restaurant there is probably a 99% chance that the establishment will be playing some sort of music. Some play it loud, while others play it at barely audible levels in the background. However, there is no doubt that music plays a large role in the operation of most bars, and to a lesser degree, restaurants.
Few people realize that a bar playing music for its patrons isn’t quite as simple as it seems – not anymore.
BMI v. Green Knoll Grill
A recent story in USA Today highlighted a Bridgewater, New Jersey bar that is being sued by Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) simply for playing some songs over a year ago in May of 2014. The lawsuit claims that the Green Knoll Grill violated copyright law when they played four songs that included Michael Jackson’s 1982 hit, Billie Jean.
You see, BMI owns the copyright to “Billy Jean” as well as 8.5 million other songs. In principle, depending on things like square footage, the number of speakers and the capacity, a license fee must be paid to the copyright holder (BMI) when using those songs.
Copyright Law. Karaoke. Pandora.
These copyright laws can pertain to CDs, tapes, DJs, karaoke, iPods, Pandora, and even radio and television. For example, a bar/restaurant is exempt from copyright laws if they play music via radio, TV, cable or satellite, if the gross square footage of the establishment is less than 3,750. Otherwise, establishments over 3,750 gross square feet must obtain a license from the copyright holder.
Last year, BMI took over 160 businesses to court for copyright infringement, while taking in $977 million in revenue from the over 600,000 businesses that pay them licensing fees. Besides BMI, the other main entities in this field are the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (SESAC). If you are playing music in your bar or restaurant, chances are that you owe one of these three entities a licensing fee.
Many establishments are either ignorant of these copyright issues or simply chose to ignore them. However doing so can be a risky proposition leading to court ordered payments far exceeding the money for licensing fees.
Like it or not, if you own a business where music is played for the enjoyment of your customers and not paying a licensing fee of some kind, the chances are that you are in violation of copyright law. As usual, it is critical that you know and fully understand the laws as well as your rights.
Until next time, I’m Attorney Francine Ward helping you protect what’s yours. Join my conversation on Facebook, Twitter, or in one of my LinkedIn groups, Google+ Circles.