The Restaurant Industry And Music Use – The Law In California

California restaurant and bar owners, and various forms of food and beverage service providers, often get themselves into trouble with the law for doing something as simple as playing music for their customers. They broadcast radio stations or stream songs in their establishment and then get slapped with a letter (or receive a threatening phone call) informing them that they owe fees for playing said music.


Some simply play a CD or MP3 of their own for clientele, and simply think they can do what they want with music they have purchased. What they don’t realize, however, is that ASCAP, BMI or a similar performing rights organization such as film can come after them for violating United States Copyright Law. As an attorney with restaurant owners as clients, you should make them aware of this immediately.


Music Use and Copyright Law in California


When broadcasting music publicly, California food and beverage service providers must understand they incur liability under federal copyright law. Restaurants, bars and similar “open to the public” establishments are considered places where a substantial number of people gather – outside of a typical circle of family and friends, that is. Hence, these types of businesses fall under United States Copyright Law.


U.S. Copyright Law is in place to protect the rights of composers, music publishers and music artists by providing for payment of royalties every time their music is played publicly during a given copyright period. There doesn’t have to be a direct charge to hear the music. Copyright Law, as it applies to music artists and royalties, extends for the life of the artist plus 70 years.


When the copyright period expires, the music is said to be in “public domain” and not subject to royalty payments for use. Interestingly, classical music that had been re-charted or re-orchestrated, such as pieces by Mozart or Beethoven, may not fall under the “public domain” exception. This means that if a food or beverage service provider plays these works, royalty payments must be made to the person who arranged the work.


Performing Rights Organizations and Licensing Agreements


Performing rights organizations or music licensing organizations usually operate in a similar manner by issuing agreements with food and beverage providers who use music from their organizations’ members. The agreements are licenses or contracts that permit the operators to use all of the works in the organizations’ repertories without the need to get individual permission to play a specific song. The rates for playing music within these organizations’ repertories is often on some variation of a flat-fee schedule.


Every performing rights organization’s rate schedule depends on several factors. Some of these factors can include:


●      Square footage of the establishment

●      Fire code occupancy

●      Recorded or live music

●      Days of operation

●      Live acts or shows combined with the music

●      Opportunity for dancing available

●      Charged cover fee

●      Use of audio-visual equipment (music on karaoke, TV, etc.)


California CLE Courses

Complying with copyright law can be challenging for a food and beverage service provider, which is why there is a need for good lawyers in this area of practice. If you have a passion for the restaurant industry or music industry, consider taking California CLE Courses that will advance your career around this subject. Focusing on classes that are specific to your interests can also be personally rewarding as you gain knowledge that may be useful to you in a variety of ways.