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
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.