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Q&A: Do I need a license to perform a song that I will not record?
By Duman & Fiero - 08/24/2006 - 12:59 AM EDT

Hi Jon & Gian.

Do I need a license to do a live performance of a song even though I will not make a recording of it?

Thanks,

Zoe




Dear Zoe.

The short answer to your question is: “probably not”.

It’s not that you’re entitled to sing the song without paying the owner for its use --it’s just that the system which is in place to oversee that payment, primarily collects it from the venues where the music is played, rather than from the individual artists who play the music at those venues. This makes sense if you consider that trying to collect payment from each and every artist would be like chasing ants...

Hence, assuming that the place where you plan to sing the song is a subscriber to the “performing rights” agencies, ASCAP, BMI and SESAC, your obligation to the owners of the song will be covered by the venue.

The right to profit from the public performance of a song is just one of the “publishing rights” which are enjoyed by the owners of the song’s copyright. Each time a song is publicly performed or broadcast, the owners of the copyright are entitled to receive a “public performance” royalty. This is true whether the song is being performed live, or broadcast on a radio station, or as part of a television program, or on the internet (i.e. when “streamed”), or where a recorded version is played in a nightclub, etc.

Pursuing each and every radio station, TV station, night club, restaurant and concert venue, etc. is too much for most song owners and their publishers to handle alone-- which is where ASCAP, BMI and SESAC come in. They are “performing rights societies” who are active in the United States (other countries have their own versions). All prolific songwriters and music publishers in the U.S. become affiliated with one them.

To comply with copyright law, radio stations, TV stations, clubs, venues, etc., must be properly licensed to publicly perform or broadcast music. ASCAP, BMI and SESAC specialize in administering the performing rights licenses which they negotiate with their “subscribers”. Blanket licenses are negotiated in many cases -- which allow the subscriber to perform any song in a particular society’s catalog.

ASCAP, BMI and SESAC also collect and distribute performing rights revenues on behalf of their respective “members” (i.e. songwriters and music publishers). The method used to figure out who gets paid and how much is complex.

The differences between the individual societies determine the make-up of their respective memberships. With ASCAP and BMI especially, the differences may seem subtle.

It’s important to note that we’re talking about public performance royalties for the song only. With some exceptions (i.e. for public “broadcast” in the digital realm), separate public performance royalties are not paid in the U.S. for the right to publicly perform or broadcast sound recordings - only the owners and publishers of the song get that royalty in this country.

Hopefully this answers your question, and then some.

-D&F


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