Play the music, pay the price

   The company mail had arrived. Invoice, invoice, solicitation, invoice, invoice, invoice. The usual, until I saw that ominous envelope with the firm name followed by a cryptic "Attorneys at Law."
   It was addressed to me personally. I got some tongs and carried it up to my office, holding it at arm’s length. Attorneys only deal with problems, and a letter to me from an attorney I didn’t know probably meant I was a problem to their client.
   What a sour thought.
   I opened the letter quickly and felt a little bit better. It was from the attorneys for Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI), threatening legal action if I didn’t immediately pay them $480 for a license to play the radio in my retail stores.
   I get the same letter almost every year. I eventually pay the fee, but only because I am one step away from being sued for the cost of the license, damages and attorney fees.
  Delaying payment is not a common practice of mine. I generally make a concerted effort to pay every bill on time. Not only is it good for my credit, it’s good for my health. My reason for delaying when paying BMI is simply my feeble way of protesting what I believe to be a ridiculously unfair charge.
  Like most businesses, we have a basic stereo system to play background music for our employees and customers. Mostly, we listen to a local radio station. But under federal copyright laws, any person or business who plays copyrighted music for non-private use needs permission from the artists.
  Practically any business is a target. If your office or warehouse plays the radio or tapes, that constitutes a "public" performance and you need permission. If they haven’t nailed you already, they may soon.
   To make matters worse, BMI only represents some of the artists and composers. They are separate from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), which represents another group.
   Can you pick which one you’d like to pay for a license? Sorry. Play the radio and you’re using copyrighted material from both groups. I pay $480 to BMI and $329 to ASCAP per year.
   BMI charges by square footage, ASCAP by number of speakers. The government does not regulate their rates. If they want to double them tomorrow, no one can stop them.
   And what is to stop a third group from coming along and demanding payment because they represent a couple of legitimate artists? Not a thing. In fact, there is another obscure "union," CESAC, which is lurking out there but has yet to find me. (I hope they don’t read the IJ).
   Like the neighborhood thugs who offered to protect merchants for a fee, these guys are tough. They’ve been taken to court numerous times, most notably by The Gap, and have won every case. Their literature states very clearly that "those who refuse a license and persist in illegal, infringing performances are subject to suit for copyright infringement in Federal Court."
   Geez, I whimper, I just want a little background music to add a little atmosphere for my employees and customers.
   Read on, they say, and whimper some more. "Violations of the Copyright Law are expensive. The law provides for an injunction prohibiting further infringements, damages of not less than $500 nor more than $20,000 (or more, if the infringements are willful) for ‘each song’ infringed, plus court costs and, in the court’s discretion, reasonably attorney’s fees."
  At 20 songs per hour, 12 hours per day, $20,000 per violation, that’s $4.8 million a day in damages. Plus attorney’s fees, which might dwarf that amount. Ouch.
   Now they’ve got my attention. I’ll be good, I promise. What do I do?
   Miraculously, there is a way to save my business from complete bankruptcy. "Obviously," the brochure continues, "it is far less expensive to comply with the Copyright Law by buying a license than to pay damages for violating the law."
   So I pay the licenses, year after year after year. The only way around it, the brochure suggests, is to get permission individually from each artist and composer that you wish to perform. But darn the luck, Springsteen wouldn’t return my calls.

 

 

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