Karaoke crashers: Group says bar violated US copyright law

AP News
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Posted: Jan 21, 2016 8:12 PM

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Refrain, karaoke lovers, from swooning the bar crowd with tales of discovering your hometown angel is a centerfold.

A national songwriters' organization sued a handful of bars nationwide this week, accusing them of violating federal law for failing to pay fees to use copyrighted music. One of those was Tanner's Bar and Grill near Liberty, Missouri, which was slapped with a lawsuit after patrons sang The J. Geils Band's "Centerfold" and two other well-known songs during a recent Tuesday karaoke night.

The lawsuits aren't a new tactic by the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, which typically files about 40 such complaints a year, sometimes as many as 100, to push bars or other establishments to pay licensing fees that largely go to songwriters, said Jackson Wagener, ASCAP's vice president for business and legal affairs. He said most cases are quickly resolved, but he declined to detail any settlements.

"There comes a time where you've made so many efforts and the place refuses to get a license," Wagener said. "At that point we take the unusual step of filing litigation."

The group sued Tanner's on behalf of three ASCAP members, saying the restaurant was given dozens of chances to buy an ASCAP license but refused. Wagner said the restaurant also is known to have DJs and live bands, all of which require a license.

Tanner's owner Allan Shepherd said he isn't convinced he needs a license and turned the lawsuit over to his lawyers.

"There are five different interpretations if you talk to the attorneys," Shepherd said Thursday, noting that he pays someone else to run his karaoke nights and could simply shut it down to fix the problem.

ASCAP's other lawsuits filed Wednesday were against bars in Arizona, California, Florida, New York, Ohio and Texas.

While the licensing fee can be nominal — Wagener estimated it would be less than $500 for a place the size of Tanner's — revenue generated from thousands of establishments paying it provides a big chunk of the income songwriters receive.

Bars that use copyrighted music also must pay a fee to Broadcast Music Inc., or BMI, which has licensed about 650,000 businesses. Like ASCAP, BMI's annual licensing fee depends on the size of venue and how often copyrighted music is played there, BMI spokeswoman Jodie Thomas said. Combined, the two organizations represent the writers of most songs DJs and karaoke operators likely have in their music library, she said.

"A lot of people don't realize that sometimes for those medium-level songwriters, this is what they do for a living," Thomas said. "They depend on the money they get from royalty checks to survive."