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Music Licensing 101 – Playing Copyrighted Music at a Restaurant Can Be Costly

The National Association of Licensing and Compliance Professionals (“NALCP”) held their 6th Annual Conference on October 12-14, 2011 inPhiladelphia,PA.   The conference consisted of three days of informative sessions for licensing professionals from around the country.

Of particular interest for restaurateurs was a discussion by Dan Spears, Assistant Vice President of Licensing for Broadcast Music, Inc. (“BMI”).  At the conference, Spears warned restaurant and bar owners that unless they previously purchased licenses from the major performing rights organizations such as BMI or its counterpart, American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (“ASCAP”), the restaurant or bar owner was committing copyright infringement.

This warning is not limited to large music venues but includes small mom & pop restaurants and bars playing music bought on iTunes.  Copyright law prohibits the unauthorized public performance of music.  Playing music in the background may not seem like a “public performance” but under the law, it is.  Section 101 of the Copyright Act states that to perform or display a work “publicly” means “to perform or display it at a place open to the public or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered.”  A performance is also considered to be public if it is transmitted to multiple locations, such as through television and radio.

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