“We Can’t Let You Go”

A story in today’s Globe is a lock to appear in the coming academic year’s copyright law discussions. Titled “Pay to Play–Strict enforcement of copyrights jeopardizing live music in small venues,” the story addresses campaigns by Performance Rights Organizations (PROs)–ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC–to require coffeehouses, cafes, and other small dining venues to obtain performance licenses and pay licensing fees for live music on site.  Venue owners claim the PROs are “aggressive” and “brusque” and are over-reaching:  “Magret Gudmundsson, who until recently hosted a monthly acoustic open mike in her Middleborough cafe, Coffee Milano[, said] ‘I like having it here, but we’re not making any money from it and they wanted $332 a year.  The town really needs something like this. They ruined it.’’  ASCAP has a different view:  “‘They’re selling coffee for four dollars and they can’t afford a dollar a day for music? If they don’t think it’s worth it, that’s their choice. But I have to say that most people recognize that music is a value to their business. Every now and then we run into people that think, ‘I’m just a small little bar; they’re not going to sue me,’ and that’s a mistake. Frankly, once you’re on our radar we can’t let you go.’’’ Which reminds me, but not quite, of the Jackson Five song, Never Can Say Goodbye.*

In 1996 ASCAP’s sledgehammer tactics–or alleged sledgehammer tactics, if you prefer–created a public-relations nightmare, when it (in the Globe’s words) “attempt[ed] to collect licensing fees from the Girl Scouts for singing campfire songs.”  Coincidentally, Legal Blog Watch points to a post on Overlawyered that asks why the Fox network’s high-school musical show “Glee” has failed to address copyright law, since “some of the activities depicted could result in some hefty fines.”  Legal Blog Watch also mentions–and provides a link to a 1996 NYTimes article about–the ASCAP-Girl Scouts dustup.  If you have any interest in music performance licenses, or would just enjoy reading about a PRO falling splat! on its face, the Times article is worth a look.

*Or maybe I Can’t Quit You, Baby

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