Arts & Entertainment, Food Service & Agriculture, and Law

ASCAP sues Grandville bar for playing music without paying

Varnum attorney says music copyright infringement suits are among most common types of intellectual property disputes.

March 3, 2017
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A supermarket cashier can listen to the radio quietly in her lane. But songs played live or over loudspeakers come with a price.

The American Society for Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) recently announced it has filed 10 separate lawsuits against restaurants and bars nationwide for the alleged unauthorized public performance of its members’ copyrighted musical works.

One of the bars is Chicago Drive Pub and Grill, 4050 Chicago Drive SW. The Grandville bar declined to comment on the lawsuit.

ASCAP is a nonprofit membership association that represents more than 600,000 independent songwriters, composers and music publishers.

The association aims to ensure its members can earn a living from their art by licensing the public performances of their songs, collecting those license fees and distributing the royalties.

Tim Eagle, an intellectual property lawyer at Grand Rapids-based Varnum, said ASCAP is one of several performing rights organizations (PROs) that license venues to use copyrighted works. Other national groups include BMI, SESAC and SoundExchange.

“There are number of PROs, and each has their own portfolio of copyright owners,” Eagle said.

Eagle said music copyright suits are widespread.

“This issue is one of the most common issues we see,” he said. “Depending on the type of business, this issue comes up relatively frequently.”

Buying a CD, vinyl record or MP3 file allows individuals to play music privately. But venues that want to play music publicly when it is incidental to the organization’s function — such as salons, retail stores, ballrooms, bars and restaurants — need to purchase a license from the PRO that represents each artist in their playlist.

This includes playing music from internet radio stations, such as Pandora or Spotify, over loudspeakers, as well as live performances of cover songs.

It’s conceivable a venue might need to obtain a few licenses, one from each PRO, if it wants to play an array of works from more than one PRO’s catalogue, Eagle said.

He said the license fees, which are set by the federal government, vary based on several factors.

“One of the most important factors is the size of the venue,” he said. “Licensing is more expensive for a larger venue than it is for a smaller one.”

Other factors include what type of music the venues are playing and how often.

According to ASCAP, a “blanket license” covers its anthology of more than 10 million musical works. The average cost for bars and restaurants amounts to less than $2 per day for the right to play an unlimited amount of music.

Eagle said PROs take a page from the federal government’s book when it comes to enforcement.

“It is very similar to the enforcement of our federal tax system,” he said. “It’s largely a voluntary compliance system in that it is the law to pay your taxes, but realistically, the Internal Revenue Service can’t go out and investigate everyone. But they need to make sure they have enough enforcement of a significant percentage of the businesses out there so as to encourage compliance from everyone.”

He said the ultimate “credible enforcement mechanism” for music copyright laws is legal action against establishments that avoid buying licenses.

“Ultimately, if they are not able to arrive at a resolution where the business voluntarily purchases a license, and the PRO believes the establishment is infringing the public performance of works in its repertoire, then the ultimate step is … legal action.”

Company owners should know their obligations surrounding use of copyrighted material, Eagle said.

“Lawyers often share this information, as well as restaurant and bar trade organizations. One of the things PROs do is couple these enforcement actions with education efforts to encourage voluntary compliance.

“Business owners might notice advertisements on the radio placed by ASCAP or BMI identifying the issue and encouraging business owners to investigate and seek out licenses.”

ASCAP said before taking action against the 10 bars named in the suit, it made numerous attempts to offer licenses and educate the business owners about their obligations under federal copyright law.

Songwriter Paul Williams, ASCAP president and chairman, said the organization wants every business to follow the law and in doing so, to thrive.

“We want every business that uses music to prosper, including bars and restaurants,” he said. “After all, as songwriters and composers, we are small business owners, too, and music is more than an art form for us. It’s how we put food on the table and send our kids to school.

“Most businesses know that an ASCAP license allows them to offer music legally, efficiently and at a reasonable price — while compensating music creators, so we can earn a living from our work and keep doing what we do best — writing music.”

The venues being sued by ASCAP are Chicago Drive Pub and Grill; Brewmasters, in Wilson, North Carolina; Clayton's Beach Bar & Grill, in South Padre Island, Texas; Exit, in Chicago; Jolt’n Joe’s, in La Mesa, California; La Cena Ristorante, in Bensalem, Pennsylvania; M15 Concert Bar & Grill, in Corona, California; Ramona Mainstage, in Ramona, California; Slide & Ride Saloon, in Martin, Tennessee; and Studio Square NYC, in Long Island City, New York.

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