Who Has To Pay The Likes of ASCAP, BMI, Etc?

By Brian Taylor Goldstein, Esq.   

I haven’t found an example that matches the situation of a 501(c)(3) I am familiar with. They throw a once-yearly art festival that spans a weekend (2days). They don’t charge the public any admittance. They raise money by charging fees for booth (10×10) spaces for (visual) arts vendors to sell their merchandise. They raise money for: their operating expenses, student art scholarships, member art scholarships, honoraria for program presenters at meetings, a fund for a permanent “home” for the 501c3 where they can hold meetings and store various gear for the meetings between times. They also have an open air music stage at that festival where local musicians perform. The musicians are paid under $150.00 for a 2 hour performance that includes 5 minutes each for set-up, a break, and stage clear-off. Most, but not all of the pieces performed are written by the performers. The “audience” is anyone who wanders by and stays to listen for a while. So, who, if anyone, has to pay fees to the likes of ASCAP, BMI, etc.?

It sounds like the 501(c)(3) organization in your scenario is trying to raise money for some very admirable and worthy goals: art scholarships, arts education, and even providing a place for local musicians to perform. In fact, these goals sound so worthy that I’m sure you wouldn’t object to the organization using your house for meetings or taking your car whenever they needed it to transport students to art classes, all without your permission and without paying you any fees. While you might be more than willing to donate your home or car on occasion, my suspicion is that you’d at least like to be asked first. As a general rule, the involuntary donation of other’s property without their permission—even if it’s for a really good cause—is also called “stealing.”

A musical composition—just like a home or a car—is considered property. It is no less valuable—indeed, I would argue, it is of greater value—than anything else you are required to pay for that has a physical price tag attached. A musical composition belongs to the composer who wrote it and/or the composer’s publishing company. Under U.S. Copyright Law, whoever owns a musical composition also has the absolute right to control and determine all uses of the property—this includes the right to perform the music live, record the music, play a recording of the music for the public, change the lyrics, make arrangements, or just about anything else you can think of to do with music; including the right to determine whether or not to donate the use of the composition for a worthy cause or project.

This means that any time a musical composition is performed live or a recording of the composition is played—whether it’s at a theater, concert hall, or out-door street festival (for-profit or non-profit)—“someone” needs to obtain the composer’s permission and, in most cases, pay a usage fee called a “Performance License.” ASCAP, BMI and SESAC are not roving bands of brigands waiting to pounce on unsuspecting non-profits who are merely trying to promote the arts. Rather, these organizations are trying to promote the arts too—primarily by reminding people (including other artists) not to take music for granted as a valueless commodity. ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC are organizations that represent composers, issuing performance licenses and collecting fees on their behalf.

If musicians are performing original music they composed themselves, then they can certainly agree to perform their own music for free. That can be a condition of hiring them to perform in the first place. However, if a musician or band is playing (“covering”) music composed by others, then just because the musicians agree to perform for a reduced fee, or even for free, doesn’t mean that the composers have allowed their music to be performed for free as well. A performance requires a performance license.

As for whose responsibility it is to obtain the necessary license, its legally everyone’s responsibility. If an unlicensed song is performed at a festival (even a free festival), then the U.S Copyright Act allows all the parties involved in arranging the performance—the artist as well as the venue or festival, and sometimes even the promoter, producer, or booking agent—to be liable for copyright infringement. So, while you could require the musicians to obtain their own licenses with regard to any music they are performing which they have not composed themselves, in my opinion that is a foolish policy. Why? Because most musicians will simply not bother and elect to take the risk of not getting caught. However, if they do get caught, it is the venue or festival who will be liable as well. It doesn’t matter that the festival may have required another party to obtain the license. That simply entitles the festival to sue the other party. The festival itself will remain liable to the composer.

So, in your case, while there are a number of factors that can determine the cost of obtaining performance licenses—the size of the venue, the price of tickets (or lack thereof), the number of performances, etc.–ultimately, it’s in the festival’s or organization’s best interest to ensure that the necessary permissions and licenses are obtained. While it might be tempting to proceed under the expectation that no one will get caught or the publishers and copyright owners will not sue small artists or struggling non-profits, that’s the same as robbing a bank and hoping the police won’t find you. Not to mention, in an industry where so many purport to operate under the noble purpose of promoting the value of art and artists, I can’t imagine the rationalization of stealing it for any purpose, regardless of how noble.


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The purpose of this blog is to provide general advice and guidance, not legal advice. Please consult with an attorney familiar with your specific circumstances, facts, challenges, medications, psychiatric disorders, past-lives, karmic debt, and anything else that may impact your situation before drawing any conclusions, deciding upon a course of action, sending a nasty email, filing a lawsuit, or doing anything rash!


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