Playing Music In Public May Require Copyright Clearance, BMI Reminds Small Business Owners

Posted in News on June 26, 2000

Business owners who use copyrighted music in their establishments may think songwriters are compensated for public performances of their songs in the purchase price of CDs.

They sometimes don’t understand why businesses are responsible for obtaining a license from performing rights organizations, such as BMI, before they can play copyrighted music for their customers.

“This is an issue that is occasionally misunderstood,” said Tom Annastas, BMI Vice President of General Licensing. “Some people assume purchasing music is like buying a shirt or shoes. What they may not realize is music is similar to movies, television programs and books under copyright law. Many people know that buying a copy of a movie doesn’t give them the legal right to open up a movie theater or play a movie in their business. Similarly, music is an intellectual property, and various uses of that property entitle the creator to additional compensation.”

Recent developments in computer technology, such as MP3 and Napster software, have made downloading free songs from the internet simple and quick. Such activities may deprive songwriters, recording artists and record companies of income. Unlike Napster, the MP3 web site has signed an agreement with BMI to recognize the rights of music creators. Napster currently is attempting to defend its business practices in federal court.

When you purchase a CD or tape of music, Annastas said, you buy the right to play that music in your home and car, or in private gatherings of family and acquaintances. If you play music in a business, whether the music is recorded or live, copyright law requires that you obtain permission from the composers of that music.

“Some business owners would like to see all performing rights included in the purchase price of recorded music, but that wouldn’t be fair to the majority of consumers, who buy music only for personal use,” Annastas said. “When you look at the entire picture, our lawmakers have written a lot of wisdom and experience into the copyright law.”

Songwriters receive a little more than three cents for each song included on a CD or tape sold, but those royalties make up less than half the income of most songwriters. Most of their compensation comes from the public performance of their music in businesses, such as radio, television, restaurants and clubs.

“Because businesses use music to attract customers or improve ambiance, music can help generate profits,” he added. Many businesses play a lot of songs, however, and negotiating an agreement with individual songwriters could be difficult and expensive. “That’s exactly why most nations have performing rights organizations,” Annastas said. “With a single agreement, we give a business legal access to millions of songs.”

Nearly all composers assign their songs to a performing rights organization. Founded in 1940, BMI represents more than half the music performed in the United States, totaling 4.5 million musical works from 250,000 composers and music publishers.


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