3 Music Lawsuits You Don’t Want to Get Slapped With 1127 words · 6 minute read

Disclaimer: The following is not to be construed as individualized legal advice and should not be relied upon without seeking specific legal advice.

The music industry is still rife with legal turmoil, a fact demonstrated by recent headlines. Karaoke clubs are getting pinched, hotshot TV channels are getting snubbed, and some of the world’s most lauded artists are getting sued.

Whether you manage the music of a small venue or bar, work on the production team of any television show, or are a singer/songwriter/performer, it’s always good to study up on the laws of the biz every now and again. A quick review of the music licensing laws that are frequenting newsstands across the country just might save your career.

Local Bars & The Direct License

Local bars, restaurants, and small venues too often neglect standard licensing laws, a negligence mostly borne of ignorance of best licensing practices rather than to thumb one’s nose to the music industry.

Of late, Piece pizzeria in Chicago’s Wicker Park is under fire for allowing patrons to sing karaoke versions of BMI protected songs, including Willie Nelson’s “Crazy,” Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “ Give it Away,” and Weezer’s “Say it Ain’t So.”

PROs like BMI have been patrolling several Midwest bars and similar venues to make sure unauthorized use of registered artists’ songs aren’t exploited. BMI reached out to Piece nearly 70 times since May 2014 in attempts to have Piece license these and other songs for use in its venue, which would likely only cost about $300 a year, according to the Chicago Tribune. As of February 17, 2016, Piece has not licensed these songs says the Tribune, so BMI is suing to gain back all expenses related to the unauthorized use of these songs. So far, BMI is seeking almost $4,000 in unpaid licensing fees from Piece based on observations of live karaoke by BMI representatives.

Owners of all venues, of any size, should learn from the current struggles of Piece. Don’t ignore PROs when they come knocking. They will acquire as much evidence as they can to help their case, including mailing lots of letters, making tons of calls, and sending representatives to record all unlicensed songs and how often each is played in your establishment. These steps determine how much compensation they can rightly get from you. That said, the last thing that these PROs want to do is bring these matters to court; they’re only trying to make sure that Artists are fairly compensated for their hard work.

Make your life easier for yourself and simply pay the $300 or so per year to the PROs, and you can play any registered songs in any way you want. Then your only concern will be the sub-par karaoke singers.

Click here for more information on the BMI case.

Public Performances & Blanket Licenses

License rates for public performance blanket deals for TV networks are typically based on a network’s market size and one-minute rate card, and that rate will surely fluctuate depending on who’s doing the licensing, as the battle between ESPN and BMI shows.

Traditionally, sports network ESPN has licensed directly from artists and publishers, skirting around PRO blanket licensing. However, according to the Hollywood Reporter ESPN has begun to license music from PROs, specifically BMI, which charges significantly higher for blanket licenses than the direct to artist/publisher strategy that ESPN has employed in the past.

As such, ESPN is going after BMI for allegedly unreasonable license rates and has since requested an adjustable fee so that it can secure a lower licensing rate based on its needs.

ESPN sought proportional rates between its direct blanket licenses with songwriters and negotiated licenses with BMI, but BMI refused. According to ESPN, BMI ignores the value of performances on ESPN in favor of controlling license rates per its own terms.

On the other hand, BMI says that ESPN uses more songs registered with BMI than it lets on. BMI states that ESPN wants a valuation of the licensed material that is much smaller than what they have agreed to pay in the past, and that the PRO won’t give in to unreasonable rates that don’t justly compensate the artists and songwriters who it represents.

The parties may take their case to rate court in order to decide on reasonable license rates. According to the Hollywood Reporter, ESPN wants the court to determine a reasonable rate for TV blanket licenses from 2010 to 2020, leading to an investigation into the value of songs in TV.

Click here for more information on the ESPN license lawsuit.

The Thin Line of Copyright

Music moguls Justin Timberlake and Will.i.am are facing copyright infringement lawsuits that accuse them of stealing musical elements of Perry Kibble’s “A New Day is Here at Last” for use in Justin Timberlake’s “Damn Girl.” The suit represents the most recent in a string of similar suits wherein heirs of famous songwriters are accusing current artists of incorporating parts of classic songs for new compositions.

Kibble gained the copyright to “A New Day is Here at Last” in 1969, says the Hollywood Reporter, the same year that the song was released. The copyright transferred to Janis McQuinton in 1999 after Kibble died, who then assigned the copyright to her corporation, PK Music Performance, which published the song and registered for a copyright renewal.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, McQuinton noticed the substantial similarity between the two songs in August 2015 and claims that the drum, conga drum, organ, bass guitar, electric guitar, and saxophone parts in “Damn Girl” are all copied from “A New Day is Here at Last.” McQuinton demanded damages for both the sound recording of “Damn Girl” and the recorded live performances of JT on his Future Sex/Love Sounds concert tour DVD. The case is currently being decided in the U.S. District Court.

Given how zealously the heirs of famous artists are issuing suits to today’s music creators, modern songwriters should keep in mind if there songs even remotely bear any similarity to previous, popular records. Of course, there’s only so much research that can be done, no one can possibly absorb the sounds and melodies for the entire lexicon of popular culture, but if it sounds similar, recent events prove that one should proceed with caution.

See the Music Dealers Blog on the Happy Birthday Copyright for a similar copyright situation and click here to learn more about JT’s new place in the copyright spotlight.

In today’s era of digitization, music laws are constantly evolving to keep with the times and trends of the industry. Check with your music attorney to learn how to navigate these changes, or contact Music Dealers if you’d like us to dissect the legalese on our blog.

By: Ashley Rovner