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What Is A Public Performance License: Navigating Legal Music Use

February 6, 2024 
Last Updated on February 6, 2024

A public performance license is a legal authorization that allows you to play copyrighted music, films, or theatrical works in a public setting. This license is essential because anytime you play copyrighted material outside of a personal setting, such as at an event or business establishment, it constitutes a public performance. Under copyright law, the creators of the work have exclusive rights, including the right to perform their work publicly. To learn more about music licensing, copyright law, and performance rights organizations, read on!

Understanding Public Performance Rights

Public performance rights are essential for copyright protection in the music industry. They dictate when and how musical works can be played in public place. Let's go into more detail.

Copyright is a legal right granted by the law to the copyright holder. As a music creator or holder of music copyrights, you have certain exclusive rights under Title 17 of the U.S. Code. Below are your rights:

  • Reproduce the work
  • Distribute copies
  • Publicly perform the work
  • Make derivative works

Public Performance Defined

A public performance refers to any music played outside of a normal circle of family and acquaintances. This includes venues like restaurants, retail stores, or broadcasting over the radio and internet. Below are some examples of public performance:

  • Live music concerts
  • Background music in a business
  • Music streamed online in a webinar
  • Radio broadcasts

Important: To legally play music in a public setting, you must obtain this license from the copyright owner or their representative.

Rights Organizations

Performance Rights Organizations (PROs) collect royalties on behalf of songwriters and publishers when their music is played in public. In the United States, the major PROs are ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC.

OrganizationFull NameRole in Public Performance Rights
ASCAPAmerican Society of Composers, Authors, and PublishersCollects and distributes public performance royalties
BMIBroadcast Music, Inc.Licenses music and collects royalties for public performances
SESACOriginally stood for Society of European Stage Authors and ComposersSmaller than ASCAP and BMI, operates on a for-profit basis

When you play a song in public, the royalties are distributed to the songwriters and publishers through these organizations, ensuring that copyright holders are compensated for the use of their work.

Obtaining A Public Performance License

When you play music publicly, it's essential to acquire a public performance license to ensure copyright compliance. This process involves understanding the type of license you need, engaging with the appropriate entity, and fulfilling the required application and fee payment.

The Licensing Process

To get a public performance license you must first identify the copyright holder or their representative, usually a performing rights organization (PRO). You must submit an application to the relevant PRO detailing your intended use of the music. This application will specify the scope of use, such as live performances or background music. Upon application review, the PRO issues a license if all requirements are met. You are then responsible for paying the agreed-upon license fee, which varies based on factors such as venue size, business type, and frequency of music use.

Types Of Licenses

There are different types of public performance licenses, each tailored to specific needs. For instance:

  • Blanket License: Covers all music in the PRO's catalog.
  • Limited License: For isolated events or single compositions.
  • Per Program License: Designed for entities like radio stations that need to license music per show or broadcast.

It's imperative to select the type that aligns with your intended use to ensure full copyright compliance.

Entities Requiring Licenses

Various entities must secure public performance licenses to legally play music:

  • Businesses: Including restaurants, bars, and retail stores.
  • Venues: Such as concert halls and event spaces.
  • Institutions: Like schools and universities.
  • Radio Stations: Both traditional and online broadcasters.
  • Streaming Services: Platforms that provide music content to the public.

As a music user, whether you're an institution or a business owner, ensuring you hold the correct public performance license is critical to uphold the rights of copyright owners and avoid potential legal issues.

A gavel with a musical note.

When you engage in public performances of copyrighted works, understanding the legal framework and ensuring compliance is critical. Your actions must align with copyright legislation to avoid significant penalties.

Under Title 17 of the U.S. Code, you are required to obtain a public performance license before playing copyrighted music, videos, or other media in public spaces. This law protects the creative rights of artists and ensures they receive compensation for the use of their works. The Fair Use doctrine does provide limited exceptions, but these are often narrowly tailored, and your case may not qualify without careful legal assessment.

Key Points of Copyright Legislation:

  • Title 17 U.S.C.: Mandates licensing for public performances.
  • Fair Use: Offers limited exceptions, subject to stringent conditions.

If you perform copyrighted works without proper authorization, you commit copyright infringement. Legal consequences can include costly lawsuits, with the possibility of being liable for attorney fees and statutory damages. It's crucial to understand the risks:

Consequences of Infringement:

  • Lawsuits: Risk of litigation from copyright owners.
  • Legal Fees: Potential responsibility for both your and the plaintiff's attorney fees.
  • Damages: Statutory damages can range from $750 to $30,000 per work, and up to $150,000 if the infringement is willful.

To mitigate these risks, ensure you have the appropriate licenses for any public performance of copyrighted material.

Role Of Performance Rights Organizations

Performance Rights Organizations (PROs) ensure that songwriters, composers, and publishers are fairly compensated for the public performance of their music. PROs manage the rights and royalties associated with public performances across various mediums.

Major PROs Explained

American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) and Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) are two of the largest PROs in the United States. They both operate as not-for-profit organizations, representing millions of works and collecting performance royalties on behalf of members. Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (SESAC) is a smaller, for-profit PRO offering similar services. Unlike ASCAP and BMI, SESAC operates on an invitation-only basis. These organizations make it simpler for entities to legally play music by offering blanket licenses that cover all the music in their respective repertoires.

Global Music Rights (GMR) is a more recent and selective PRO, managing the rights of a tightly-curated group of songwriters and composers.

SoundExchange is a different type of PRO that focuses on managing performance rights for digital transmissions, primarily for sound recordings, and is not typically involved in licensing for live performances.

Collection And Administration Of Rights

Your right to perform music publicly entails legal responsibilities, which include obtaining proper licenses and paying the associated fees. PROs play a crucial role in administering these rights. They issue licenses to businesses and organizations and then collect fees from these licenses, effectively enabling you to legally play music in public venues.

PROs distribute the collected royalties to their members — the songwriters, composers, and publishers — based on the use of their music. The royalties you pay are thus essential for the sustenance of the creative industry, ensuring creators are compensated for the use of their work.

By streamlining the process, PROs provide a vital service that benefits both the creators of music and those who wish to use it in their businesses or for other public performances.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How much does a public performance license cost?

The cost of a public performance license varies depending on several factors, including the size of your venue, the number of events you host, and the type of music you play. Fees can range from a flat annual rate to more complex calculations based on attendance, revenue, or other factors.

Can one license cover all music?

No single license covers all music because rights are often held by different entities. However, by obtaining licenses from the major PROs, you can cover a vast majority of popular and commercial music. For more specific or niche genres, additional licensing from other rights holders may be required.

Are there any exceptions to needing a public performance license?

Yes, there are exceptions. For example, playing music in a non-commercial setting, such as a private event in your home, typically does not require a license. Additionally, certain types of establishments with minimal use of music or under specific conditions might be exempt. It's important to consult with a legal expert to understand these exceptions.

Is it possible to negotiate the terms of a public performance license?

In some cases, it may be possible to negotiate the terms of a public performance license, particularly for larger venues or events with specific needs. However, for many small businesses and standard uses, the fees and terms are often set by the performing rights organization and are non-negotiable.

Where can I find more information about public performance licenses?

For more information, you should visit the websites of the performing rights organizations relevant to your country, such as ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC in the United States. They offer comprehensive guides and resources on how to legally use music in public spaces.

Final Thoughts

To ensure compliance with the law, you need to get a license when playing copyrighted music in a public setting. This license is vital for:

  • Protecting artists' rights
  • Legally operating your venue or business
  • Avoiding costly fines.

Key Takeaways:

  • Obtain a License: Your responsibility for securing the necessary permissions.
  • Benefits: Supports the creative industry and provides a legal framework for your operations.

Sources for Licenses:

  • Performance Rights Organizations (PROs) like ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC.
  • Specific Licensing Agencies for theatrical, sync, or mechanical rights.

Remember, each public performance, whether live or recorded, needs proper licensing. This acknowledges the creators' work and contributes to the cultural ecosystem's sustainability.

Stay informed on the specifics as laws and regulations may vary by region. If you're unsure, consult a legal expert to navigate the licensing process effectively.

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