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Coffee Shops Getting Copyright ‘Shakedown?’

Coffee Shops Getting Copyright ‘Shakedown?’

Florida coffee ships and other live music venues forced to pay royalty fees if performing artists play copyrighted music.

Want to hear a guy play a few Bob Dylan cover songs for free over a mocha latte half-caf grande? Well, the time to do so may be drawing to a close in coffee shops and other small live music venues around the country.

An article on Florida Today recounts the misery many of these owners are facing in dealing with music licensing companies who have been stepping up enforcement of copyright protection law which “…requires each business that publicly performs music to obtain permission prior to performing any copyrighted music.” Under the law, failure to do so can incur damages “…ranging from $750 to $150,000 for each song performed without proper authorization,” according to SESAC spokesman Shawn Williams.

Who is SESAC? Headquartered in Nashville, it bills itself as “The most innovative and fastest growing performing rights organization in the US,” and much like other performing rights organizations is “…designed to represent songwriters and publishers and their right to be compensated for having their music performed in public.”

That’s right, if you play a song in public copyright law says that one of these performing rights organizations is supposed to okay and license it even if there’s no cover charge involved and you’re not getting paid.

The owner of the East Coast Coffee & Tea shop in Indian Harbour, Florida mentions how he decided to start offering FREE live music on Friday and Saturday nights. Nobody was charged to hear them, and the musical artists weren’t paid to play. It was free music in every sense and to a logical person would seem a reasonable “fair use” of copyrighted “material.” But, one of the other performing rights organizations, ASCAP, didn’t see it that way and came knocking a few months later demanding a $400 a year licensing fee.

“At the time, the shop was losing money, so we had to break it up into payments,” said Laurie Hall, part of the husband and wife team that own the shop. But, about 6 months later several more performing rights organizations came knocking and demanded that the Halls pay a music licensing fee to them as well. As a result, the Halls decided to axe those musicians who didn’t play their own music.

“It makes me so angry,” Hall said. “People like playing here because it’s not a bar, there’s no smoke and it’s a clean environment. I feel like the greedy music industry is extorting money from us and hurting these musicians just starting out.”

How did they find out about their Friday and Saturday night “concerts?” Well, according to Richard Reimer, senior vice president of ASCAP, “Local newspapers carry advertisements for venues that present live entertainment and, of course, the Internet is a valuable resource as well.” He also furthers that “ASCAP representatives may visit establishments and find that they advertise live entertainment.” Yep, they actively seek out places that offer live entertainment and make sure that if any of the artists perform covers then the business has to pay a licensing fee.

“They have threatened to shut down my place,” said Lou Andrus, owner of the popular beachside nightclub Lou’s Blues.

“It started 15 years ago when I had a guy come out to our other place, Cantina dos Amigos, and play Mexican music on his guitar on the patio,” Andrus said. “They came after me for money. Are they really sending royalty checks to the songwriter in Mexico?”

He apparently pays BMI and ASCAP about $3,000 a year and chooses to ignore the smaller performing rights organizations.

“There are so many damned companies you don’t know who to pay,” he said. “One guy called and said I had to pay him if I played any gospel music at all. It’s really a mess.”

One things for sure, it’s certain to have an ongoing detrimental effect on small live music venues who certainly can’t afford to shell out money for licensing fees to every copyright enforcement organization that shows up on their doorstep. The music industry already managed to destroy physical CDs and record stores, is it now trying to kill off the ubiquitous coffee shop guitar player as well? I wonder if they realize that in doing so it will just further increase the demand for digital music via a portable music player listening alternative and thus hasten their slow, inevitable slide into irrelevance as music distribution entities.

Jared Moya
I've been interested in P2P since the early, high-flying days of Napster and KaZaA. I believe that analog copyright laws are ill-suited to the digital age, and that art and culture shouldn't be subject to the whims of international entertainment industry conglomerates. Twitter | Google Plus
axlman
axlman

"The music industry already managed to destroy physical CDs and record stores is it now trying to kill off the ubiquitous coffee shop guitar player as well? I wonder if they realize that in doing so it will just further increase the demand for digital music via a portable music player listening alternative and thus hasten their slow inevitable slide into irrelevance as music distribution entities." Awww. This really comes down to a bunch of loosers (The RIAA) afraid of that they will have to start working at the local Burger King.

Sparky9
Sparky9

They have been doing this for years.

jbailey
jbailey

Music licensing in these businesses has nothing to do with the record companies or the RIAA. BMI and ASCAP operate on a non-profit basis paying about 87 cents of every dollar collected to songwriters and music publishers. Many songwriters publish their own songs. Businesses that play music in public in America as well as in most other countries have been compensating songwriters in this way for more than 100 years. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled back in 1917 (Herbert VS Shanley) that restaurants must pay songwriters even if the business didn't charge directly for the music. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled that all uses of copyrighted work even those for which a specific fee was not charged required compensation. To paraprase Holmes if these businesses did not profit from the music they would not offer it to customers. This is nothing new. This is how songwriters earn a living and they deserve to be compensated for their work as much as anybody else. There will always be business owners and others who want to use music for free but I don't agree with that. Most songwriters don't do concert tours or sell T-shirts and most don't record. They may not have great voices and may not be good-looking but they do have creative talent. They have a right to be paid for the pleasure they bring to our lives.

Boomer The Dog
Boomer The Dog

Just because a way of doing things has been around for 100 years doesn't mean it's the best way for today.

TronixA
TronixA

I don't think they charged $3000 a year either back then.

Bean Guy
Bean Guy

I wonder if "jbailey" defender of ASCAP, can tell us how the Little Guy songwriter is compensated for his/her work in writing a song that was played in a coffee shop. No? Here's how. He's not. ASCAP/BMI and others pay zero compensation to songwriters based on what's played where. After all, without submitting a playlist every week, how would they know who to pay? So they go by radio airplay. If your song gets played a lot on, say, Cleveland radio, then you get paid. If your song only gets played at bars in Evansville, Indiana, and never gets on the air, you don't get paid. So let's quit giving ASCAP accolades for getting just compensation for all the hardworking songwriters out there and call it what it is...a shakedown. If they really wanted it to be a fair system, they'd license the performers, by song, no matter where they played. But most bands don't have any money, so they wring it out of the coffeeshops and bar owners. They are killing the music industry by taking away small venues that will play obscure music.



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