Music licensing company BMI has filed lawsuits against 12 bars and restaurants nationwide, claiming they have been playing their songs without paying a licensing fee. One of the bars — apparently targeted at random — is Whiskey Bones Roadhouse in Rochester.
Any establishment that plays music heard by the general public needs a license. If you own a radio station or a restaurant and you want to broadcast or play music, you need public performance rights — the right to play music that the general public will hear in one way or another. BMI negotiates license agreements on behalf of songwriters, composers and music publishers and distributes them as royalties to those members whose works have been performed. Whiskey Bones owner Todd Powers said he’s never heard of the law. He got word of the lawsuit about a week ago, he said Wednesday, but didn’t know what it meant.
“I don’t know; I’ve never heard of it,” said Powers, who has owned the business since 2007. “So every other place in Rochester has to do this, too?”
Broadcast Music Inc. has sued hundreds of establishments across the country for playing BMI-licensed songs without a proper license, usually 75 to 125 copyright infringement lawsuits against eating and drinking establishments every year, according to past reports. The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, another large publishing rights organization, files between 250 and 300 similar suits per year. A statement from BMI didn’t address the lawsuits specifically, but said, in part, “BMI is a private, non-profit-making organization, representing the public performance rights of more than 600,000 songwriters, composers, and music publishers. United States copyright law requires that business owners who use music in their businesses secure permission from each songwriter or composer in order to legally play their music publicly. BMI’s role as a global music rights management firm is to grant copyright clearance to music users of more than 7.5 million songs within the BMI repertoire through a single music license, so that they don’t have to negotiate with each songwriter or composer individually for permission to play their music publicly.”
Typically, BMI sends a representative into an establishment and has them record songs being played, according to information on BMI’s website. A number of lawsuits provide four examples of BMI-licensed songs being played. Once that information is relayed to BMI, its attorneys follow up by trying to collect blanket licensing fees. If that’s not successful, BMI files suit. Both BMI and ASCAP, which each license millions of songs, say they take legal action as a last resort. Rather, they repeatedly contact businesses to ask them to pay for the music they are playing before going to court. “We’re not here to put anybody out of business,” Leah Luddine, director of public relations at BMI, said Thursday morning.
Powers said he doesn’t remember receiving any correspondence from BMI regarding his alleged infringement and questions if other businesses, specifically Rochester establishments, are paying the required fee. The formula for licensing fees is about $5 for each possible occupant, so a 300-occupancy bar would pay about $1,500 per year. Many businesses that play music or TV — not just bars and restaurants — could be subject to similar lawsuits if they don’t meet the legal exceptions for square footage or have music systems that include blanket licenses. The law is commonly policed, officials say.
Since there are many variables as to whom and what kind of music licensing businesses may need, the best bet is to check the websites of the main three performing rights organizations.
Why licenses are needed:
United States copyright law allows a person buying a CD, MP3 or similar music delivery device to hear a non-public performance of that material (at home or in a vehicle). For public, “live” performances of someone else’s copyrighted music — including radio, TV, bands or karaoke — non-exempt entities have a legal obligation to obtain and/or pay for permission.