Paying the Piper

For the public performance of recorded or live music that has been created and copyrighted by an artist, an organization is supposed to get appropriate permission in the form of a "license" from that artist, and pay a required royalty fee before playing that artist's music. Failure to do so can subject an organization to a copyright infringement lawsuit by the artist or the artist's legal representative.

It may surprise you to know that this royalty requirement even applies in the case of playing something as innocuous as recorded "background music" in a public place. It also extends to music used by exhibitors at a trade show or music used by presenters in a slide show or video at a conference. The fact that the music is being played at an event hosted by a nonprofit organization that does not intend to make a profit or that the attendees at a conference are limited solely to the dues-paying members of the host organization is also irrelevant. Moreover, while hotels often will have paid for their own license to play recorded music throughout much of the hotel, that license normally does not extend to space in the hotel that is leased to a third party for an event like a conference. Instead, the conference host must obtain its own music license for any music to be played in its leased space.

Getting Permission
So how does a person contact an artist and determine the appropriate royalty? For example, if you wanted to play Frank Sinatra's rendition of "New York, New York" at the opening session of your next meeting in the Big Apple, precisely how would you go about doing that? Do you need to track down Frank's estate or his lawyer? Fortunately not. Getting permission—whether it is from one artist or from 100 artists, and whether it is from deceased artists or currently living artists—has been intentionally made as easy as possible, and is not the time-consuming hassle that it would otherwise be if you were forced to track down and deal with each artist individually.

There are three major organizations that act as clearinghouses for most artists in the world and that license those artists' music for public use by others. Specifically, most recording artists have their music licensed for them by BMI (which stands for Broadcast Music Inc.), ASCAP (which stands for the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers), or SESAC (which stands for the Society of European Stage Authors & Composers). Search the three organizations' databases and see which organization handles the particular artist and the particular song you desire to play at your next meeting.

BMI is perhaps the easiest of the three to deal with because of its robust online search engine and its simple licensing agreement. To search the BMI library of artists and songs, go to They have a relatively simple and appropriately named "Meetings, Conventions, Trade Shows, and Expositions" license agreement that can be found at All you do is complete that agreement, pay a minimum upfront fee, and you are ready to start playing their music.

You might notice that, in the meetings and conventions license agreement with BMI, you are never asked to name the songs that you intend to play at your meeting or convention. Instead, you pay an annual royalty fee of "$.06 per attendee" for any meetings or conventions where BMI-licensed music is played, and then you report the number of events and the total number of attendees annually to BMI. So licensing one song from BMI costs the same as licensing 100 songs; the key is really the number of attendees rather than the amount of music. So it pays to remember that once you have a music license with a company like BMI, you should take advantage of as many of the licensed songs in their library as you can, because the annual royalty fee does not increase with the number of songs you played at your conventions during the year.

Ben Tesdahl, Esq. is an attorney concentrating in nonprofit, corporate, copyright, and contract law, including meeting and convention law. He is with the law firm of Powers, Pyles, Sutter & Verville, P.C. in Washington D.C. He can be reached at (202) 466-6550 or at [email protected]

Originally published January 01, 2008

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