Q: What Is A Public Performance of Music And What Is The Performing Right?

A "public performance" of music is defined in the U.S. Copyright Law as one that takes place outside of a normal circle of friends and family. Songwriters, composers, and music publishers have the exclusive right to play their music publicly and to authorize others to do so under the Copyright Law. This is known as the "Performing Right". The principal purposes of the performing right are to reward creators of music and to enable them to continue to create music. When you see the words "All Rights Reserved" on a movie that you've rented or purchased, you know that playing that movie before a public audience is prohibited. The same restrictions apply to music that is purchased and then broadcast or performed “live” by musicians who are hired to play in a public setting. Every business or organization must receive permission from the copyright owners of the music being performed publicly in advance of such performances.

Q: Who And What Are the Performing Right Organizations (PROs)?

There are three performing right organizations in the United States, ASCAP, BMI and SESAC, and their
purpose is to license businesses and other entities that publicly perform music in a cost-effective and
convenient manner while protecting the performing rights of their respective songwriter, composer and
music publisher members and affiliates.

Q: What Do the PRO Licenses Do?

Each PRO’s license gives you a license to entertain your customers, guests and employees by choosing any of the works in the respective PRO’s repertory of music. One of the greatest advantages of each PRO’s license is that it gives you the right to perform ANY or ALL of the millions of musical works in the PRO’s repertories. Whether your music is live, broadcast, transmitted or played via CD's or videos, your PRO license covers your performances. Paying one license fee to each of the PRO's saves you the time, expense, and burden of contacting potentially thousands of copyright owners to obtain directly from them the right to perform their copyrighted songs.

Q: Why do I need to buy Licenses from Three PROs?

A music license with one performing right organization allows you to perform only copyrighted music represented by that organization. It does not cover public performances of the music licensed by the other organizations. This is because each songwriter or composer may belong to only one performing right organization at any given time, so each PRO licenses a unique repertory of music.

Q: We Purchased Our Own CDs, Digital Audio Files, Software and Equipment to Play It On. Isn't This Our Property To Play Anywhere?

Although most people buy digital audio files, CDs or software thinking they are now their property, there is a distinction in the law between owning a copy of the music and owning the actual songs that are played. When you buy an audio file, software, or CD, even those specifically marketed for business purposes, the purchase price covers only your private listening use, regardless of how the files or recordings are labeled. Once you decide to play any copyrighted music publicly, you need permission from the copyright owners of the music.

Q: I'm interested in playing music in my restaurant or other business. I know that I need permission for live performances. Do I need permission if I am using only CD's, records, tapes, MP3s, internet streams, radio or TV?

Yes, you will need permission to play CDs, records, tapes, MP3s and internet streams in your establishment. With limited exceptions, permission is often needed for the public performance of music through radio and television. Permission for radio and television transmissions in your business may not be needed if the performance is by means of public communication of TV or radio transmissions by food service or drinking establishments under 3,750 gross square feet or other non food service or drinking establishments under 2,000 gross square feet which use a limited number of speakers or TVs, and if the reception is not further transmitted (for example, from one room to another) from the place in which it is received, and there is no admission charge. Businesses should consult United States Copyright Law to see if an exemption applies.

Q: Aren't TV, Cable, And Radio Stations Already Licensed with the PRO's?

They are, but their agreements do not authorize performances by means such as TV, cable, and radio to the public by businesses and other organizations using a single receiving apparatus of a kind commonly used in private homes. Certain public performances by means of radio and TV only are specifically addressed in Title 17, Section 110(5)(B) of the U.S. Copyright Law which states that any food service or drinking establishment that is 3,750 gross square feet or larger, or any other establishment other than a food service or drinking establishment that is 2,000 gross square feet or larger, must secure public performance rights for use by TVs or radios if any of the following conditions apply:

• For TV, if the business is using:
1. more than four TVs; or
2. more than one TV in any one room; or
3. if any of the TVs used has a diagonal screen size greater than 55 inches; or
4. if any audio portion of the audiovisual performance is communicated by means of more than six
loudspeakers, or four loudspeakers in any one room or adjoining outdoor space; or
5. if there is any cover charge, admission fee, membership fee or similar charge.

• For radio, if the business is using:
1. more than six loudspeakers; or
2. more than four loudspeakers in any one room or adjoining outdoor space; or
3. if there is any cover charge, admission fee, membership fee or similar charge; or
4. music on hold.

(Note: Businesses may still need a license if there are any other types of public performances of licensable
music other than by radio or TV.)

Q: Aren't musicians, entertainers and DJ's responsible for obtaining permission for music they perform?

Some people mistakenly assume that musicians and entertainers, including DJs and karaoke jockeys (KJs), must obtain licenses to perform copyrighted music, or that businesses where music is performed can shift their responsibility to musicians or entertainers. For many decades, it has been the law that all who participate in, or are responsible for performances of copyrighted music are legally responsible for infringing performances of that music. Since it is the business owner who obtains the ultimate benefit from the performance, it is the business owner who obtains the license, whether the performance is by a live band, DJ, karaoke (with or without a KJ), or otherwise. Music license fees are one of the many costs of doing business.

Q: Where do the license fees go?

The fees that ASCAP, BMI and SESAC collect are distributed to their affiliated songwriters, composers, and music publishers in the form of royalties, after deducting operating expenses.

Q: How Do I Obtain a License for a Jukebox?

Your jukebox operator generally takes care of procuring the licenses for his jukeboxes, either through the Jukebox License Office (JLO), or through the music provider if it is a so-called digital or internet jukebox. Otherwise, licenses for jukeboxes (other than so-called digital or internet Jukeboxes) are available through the Jukebox License Office. The JLO makes it convenient and economical for you to obtain the permission you need for your jukebox by serving as a "clearinghouse" that provides authorization to perform virtually every copyrighted song in the United States and much of the world.

The JLO is a joint venture of the United States performing rights organizations, ASCAP, BMI and SESAC. The JLO offers a license which provides total access to all songs in the ASCAP, BMI and SESAC repertories. The Jukebox License Agreement is a single, economical, annual license that provides the authorization required to publicly perform copyrighted songs on a jukebox. Jukeboxes that are licensed by the JLO, must display a certificate in the title strip holder of each jukebox.

Establishments where music is performed by some means other than the jukebox (DJ's, bands, tapes, etc.), still need a separate license from each PRO (or the individual copyright owners) covering these other performances. The Jukebox License Agreement only provides authorization for jukebox performances. The jukebox, or "coin-operated phonorecord player," qualifies for the Jukebox License Agreement if it is a machine or device that:

  • is used solely for non-dramatic public performances of music; and
  • is operated by coins, tokens, currency or the like; and
  • is operated by patrons of the establishment (not employees), who make their selections from a list of titles; and
  • is located in an establishment making no direct or indirect charge for admission.

If your jukebox fails to meet any of these criteria, it does not qualify as a "coin-operated phonorecord
player" under the Copyright law and performances on that jukebox cannot be licensed through the JLO.
Licenses must then be acquired from each of the three performing rights organizations individually.

Q: Do my licenses from the PROs provide me with all the rights associated with the music or recording?

The licenses from the performing rights organizations only cover the public performance rights discussed above. There are other rights that are licensed by others, which may need to be obtained for you to use the music or recording in a commercial manner.

The PROs do not license recording (mechanical) rights. Recording rights for many publishers are licensed by the Harry Fox Agency.

The record companies also may have rights in the music or recording. The name and address of the record company should appear on the record label. The Recording Industry Association of America, a trade organization for record labels, can provide you with more information on the rights of record labels. 


For more information, see these websites: