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Restaurant Music: Playing It by the Rules

What type of music is being played in your restaurant? Tapes, compact discs, live performances or juke box? DVDs, radio, TV, or karaoke? Careful…it might cost you $7,612 per song.

Fosters American Grille, a North Carolina restaurant, has been directed to pay $30,450 in damages by the North Carolina Eastern District court after being found guilty for copyright infringement. The lawsuit was filed by Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) after they found out that the restaurant illegally played four of BMI’s copyrighted songs. The court decided that the defendants, John Weskett Powers and Cameron Hospitality, Inc. had “willfully and intentionally infringed upon the legal rights of four songs owned by BMI.” BMI claims that they have made several attempts to settle the matter with the restaurants’ management, saying that they tried to call the restaurant’s managers 56 times and mailed them 29 letters to resolve the matter, emphasizing to the servers in their smart restaurant uniforms their need to talk to management, but they did not get any response at all.

BMI is one of the performance-rights societies which offer license agreements to commercial establishments if they want to play recorded music in their establishments. Groups such as BMI, ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) and SESAC, Inc. (Society of European Stage Authors and Composers) hold the performing rights of more than 10 million songs by over a million artists worldwide, and feels that they do have a serious obligation to protect their artists, pay their royalties and fight unlicensed musical performances.

“Our company licenses over 600,000 commercial establishments across the U.S.,” said BMI vice president of corporate communications and marketing Robbin Ahrold. “We always try our best to contain the issue at hand. There are only some of them which get to the point of litigation—we did try to settle the matter with Fosters American Grille for two years. We’re just here to look after the copyrights of our songwriters.”

Licensing groups, like BMI, employ people who would go into restaurants, clubs and bars and record the music that is performed or played. Such is what happened to Fosters when they were caught playing the unlicensed songs of R. Kelly, Michael Jackson and a song entitled Aeroplane by various artists.

The current licensing fee to be able to pay copyrighted music is roughly $6,060 per year, depending on whether the music is recorded or live, how big the establishment is, and whether dancing is allowed. It’s an amount that not everyone is willing to pay.

“It’s very important that our restaurants have suitable music that adds to the mood and atmosphere that we want to create, and we have accepted the fact that there are expenses that go with that,” said Robert Royster, who operates and owns Ruckus Pizza in Raleigh. “I guess it’s just part of the business itself—like rent, food costs, salaries and restaurant uniforms.”

The copyright law (effective January 25, 1999), however is quite stringent. Some restaurants are only allowed to play radio and television music in their establishments. Restaurateurs who want to avoid buying license agreements from these performing rights groups can opt to get a license from a background music provider. Background music providers are the ones who deal with the performing rights societies, and their fees are more minimal.

Another way is to install a coin-operated jukebox, which must also be licensed by an operator. If this is done, the restaurant cannot charge any admission fees to their customers at all.

To get in touch with BMI, dial 1-800-925-8451. ASCAP: 1-800-505-4052. SESAC: 1-800-826-9996. For background music providers, you can try MUZAK at 1-888-466-8925 or Dynamic Media at 1-800-684-7050. For jukebox licensing, contact the Jukebox Licensing Office at 1-800-955-5853.