Many restaurant owners and operators play music in their establishments for their customers’ enjoyment. The type of music you play can also be part of your restaurant’s concept. However, you cannot just bring in some old CDs or your MP3 player and plug them into a speaker system. Many of the songs you might play are protected by United States copyright law.
The U.S. copyright law states that the owner of any given song has the exclusive rights to perform their songs in public. If you want to play music in your restaurant, you will need permission from the song’s owner. Songs are usually owned by the songwriter, which may or may not be the artist whose name is on a particular album. Sure, you bought the aforementioned CDs and MP3s, but the copyright clause that comes with the music (the fine print that you never read) only grants permission for personal use. Putting a CD into the boom-box for your patrons to enjoy is a form of public performance, not personal use.
Additionally, U.S. copyright law is very particular when music is being used by another person to make money. Since playing music adds value and encourages people to eat at your restaurant, you are going to have to pay royalties to the song’s owner. Restaurants, and other businesses, in the United States that want to play music pay royalties by purchasing music licenses from three different affiliate societies to which particular songwriters belong.
Companies that License Music
In the United States, there are three affiliate companies for songwriters and music artists. These companies issue licenses to organizations that wish to play music, whether it is a karaoke bar, a restaurant or a radio station. The licensing fees are used to pay royalties to all of the songwriters and artists in that particular company’s music library.
- American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). ASCAP was created in 1914 and is a membership society that consists of more than 330,000 U.S. composers, songwriters and music publishers. Among their library are songs from artists like: Garth Brooks, Dr. Dre and Madonna. ASCAP also represents thousands of international musicians.
- Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI). BMI has a library of more than 6.5 million songs from over 375,000 songwriters and composers. BMI issues licenses for music in several forms, like ringtones and ringbacks, satellite radio stations and jukeboxes.
- SESAC, Inc. SESAC started in 1930 and only licensed European and gospel music. Today, SESAC includes all music genres and has offices in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Miami and London.
Search for Songs or Artists
Each music company has a searchable library. If you are looking for particular artists, you may only need to license with one company. Follow the links below to each company’s website, where you will be able to search for particular artists, performers or songs:
Other Music Options
As an alternative to paying for three separate music licenses, or limiting your music selection to the songs represented by only one licensing agency, restaurants can use one of following options:
Background Music Providers
Background music providers are “go between” companies that will allow you to sign one contract and have access to all of the music you want. One example of a background music provider is MUZAK. MUZAK has a licensing agreement with all three music associations. By contracting with a background provider, you are automatically licensed for all three music copyright societies, and your fees to the provider cover the songwriters’ royalties. Background music providers will cost more than any other licensing option, because a portion of your fees will go to the company, but the fees usually include music programs tailored to your specific concept.
Coin operated jukeboxes are another alternative to licensing with all three societies. The Jukebox License Office in New York City acts as a one stop shop for licensing music in qualifying jukeboxes. In order to qualify for the license, your jukebox must:
- Be used only for non-dramatic public music performances
- Operated by some form of currency like: coins, tokens, etc
- Operated by the establishment’s patrons, not the employees
- Located in an establishment that does not charge for admission
The amount of money you pay to license music for your restaurant depends upon these factors:
- Size of your establishment
- Whether it is live music or recorded
- How often you will be playing the music
- Which method of licensing you choose
When opening a new restaurant, one thing you will want to consider is joining a restaurant association. There are national and state-level restaurant associations that provide benefits for their members. One of the benefits of joining a restaurant association is a discount on music licensing.
Playing a copyrighted music in a restaurant without permission is considered unauthorized redistribution, or theft. As with any form of thievery, unauthorized redistribution or transmission of copyrighted music has a cost. The person responsible for the copyright infringement can be liable in the following manners:
- Device. A radio or television can be considered a music-playing device. If these devices are not registered to play music, you can be charged up to $2,500 per device.
- Digital Music Recording. If you plug your digital music player into a central speaker system without obtaining the proper licenses, you can be fined up to $25/song.
- Transmission. When live bands are performing, you are responsible for licensing the songs they play. Failure to obtain a music license for a live band’s music can cost you up to $10,000.
Exemptions for Restaurants
Not every restaurant in America that wants to play music has to be licensed. A restaurant whose total area (kitchen and storage are included) is less than 3,750 square feet is exempt from licensing requirements for public broadcasts only. Restaurants or bars that are over 3,750 square feet in size can also be exempt if one of the following conditions exists:
- The audio system uses six or fewer speakers with no more than four in any one room, or outdoor space.
- The audio/visual system consists of no more than four televisions, with no more than one T.V. per room and whose screens are smaller than 55 inches, diagonally.
Additionally, any restaurant or bar, either over or less than 3,750 square feet, cannot charge a cover for guests to listen to the music. These exemptions only apply to radio and television music. They do not cover live bands or recorded music.
“Digital Audio Recording Devices and Media,” Copyright Law of the United States 229, http://www.copyright.gov/title17/92chap10.pdf (accessed January 26, 2009).
 National Restaurant Association , “Music Licensing & You,” http://www.restaurant.org/pdfs/legal/musiclicensing.pdf (accessed January 26, 2009).
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