Dear Music Publishing Cat,
I just opened up a coffee shop in my hometown. If we know that it is a customer’s birthday we give them a free latte and muffin and the staff will gather around and sing “Happy Birthday.” One of my lawyer friends told me that I’m asking for big trouble by doing this and that I can be sued for singing that song. Can my coffee shop REALLY be sued for singing or playing the “Happy Birthday” song?
Scared in Schenectady
To somewhat oversimplify things, yes you can. Ok, the chances that there’s going to be a lawyer at your door ready to hit you with a lawsuit before the candles get blown out are rather slim, but you can’t just use music in your business without following the rules.
Whether you play a cd, stream from the internet, or someone plays music live, those are all considered “Public Performances” since your coffee shop is recognized as a place of public accommodation (just like a bar or restaurant). The law states that any public performance of a copyrighted musical work must be licensed and a royalty paid to the songwriter and publisher. Since you can’t possibly know who or how much to pay for each and every song, the law also created organizations to handle all of this for you. These are called “Performing Rights Organizations.” Maybe you’ve heard of ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC? These three organizations issue licenses to shops like yours that allow you to legally use music in your business.
Because each of the organizations represents different music, a business that wants to use music must get licenses from all three organizations. The cost of the licenses is based on what kinds of music you want to use (live, recorded, streaming), how often, and the physical size of your business. If the size of your business is under a certain threshold, and you meet a few other conditions, you might even be exempted from paying any fees at all!
Getting your business properly licensed isn’t really a very difficult process. Each organization has the information you need on their websites: http://www.ascap.com/licensing/licensefinder , http://www.bmi.com/licensing , and http://sesac.com/Licensing/Licensing.aspx . If need assistance, you can call on my consulting partners at SSA Music Publishing who can guide you along for a nominal fee.
SSA Music Publishing
SSA Music Publishing focuses on the artists, music and array of opportunities available in today’s music business. SSA Music Publishing is Preparing, Pitching, Protecting & Paying Artists. Learn more about SSA Music Publishing services, consulting and opportunities, options at: visit: http://SSAMusicPublishing.com/