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  • R. Scott Kimsey

Does Your Business Need a License to Play the Radio?

The Copyright Act grants a number of exclusive rights to a copyright owner. Among those rights is the right to publicly perform the work. This has consequences for businesses like bars and restaurants that often play the radio, have televisions, or otherwise publicly perform works covered by copyright. If your business engages in these activities, you may need a performance license.

It seems counter-intuitive to many business owners, but transmission of a radio or television broadcast within a business that is open to the public is considered a public performance. As a general rule, the business will need a license from the copyright owner of any work they are "performing" in this way. The license requirement is complicated by the fact that a radio or television broadcast will include a large number of protected works during any given time period. Licensing agencies like BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC have agents that travel the country, visiting businesses and checking to see whether anything the business is doing might violate copyrights they enforce. Many business owners have received notices from one of these licensing agencies demanding a license fee for playing radio or televisions broadcasts within the business.

The good news for small business owners is that the law has exceptions for some businesses, so that they do not need a license for their television or radio broadcasts. The exceptions can be complicated in some cases, and can hinge on the particular broadcast equipment a business is using. In general, the exceptions are as follows:

  • Businesses that don't serve food or drink and are less than 2,000 square feet do not need a license to broadcast non-dramatic musical works. The equipment used by the business is irrelevant;

  • Businesses that serve food or drink and are less than 3,750 square feet can broadcast non-dramatic musical works without a license. Again, the equipment used does not matter;

  • Businesses that don't qualify for the exceptions above, based on square footage, can still fall within the exception, but only if:

  • any radio transmission is broadcast via no more than six speakers, no more than four of which are in any one room or adjacent area

  • any television transmission is broadcast via no more than four televisions, no more than one of which is in any one room. None of the televisions can have a diagonal size of more than fifty-five inches, and no more than six loudspeakers can be used, no more than four of which are in a single room or adjacent area.

If you have televisions or radios playing in your business, it is a good idea to check your setup against the exceptions above so that you do not end up unexpectedly owing a license fee for these performances.

Also, keep in mind that the exceptions above apply to television and radio broadcasts. The exceptions do not apply if you are originating the music yourself. If you have live bands performing at your business, or even if you play CDs or iPods instead of the radio, you will need a performance license.

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©2020 by R. Scott Kimsey