Most of us remember the glory days where a blank CD and 10 of our favorite songs could quickly turn into the mixed tape playlist of the summer. As a tween, I would sit by my boom box in my room, waiting for my favorite songs to come on the radio so I could click “record” and save them forever on my cassette tape. A few years later, I learned how to navigate online downloads. In an era where so much content is available at our fingertips 24/7, it seems almost impossible that anything is set aside, sacred or off limits any more.
Anyone can post a cover song on YouTube, add a clip of a pop hit to their wedding video or create a brand marketing campaign featuring the beat of a hit tune, right? Not so fast. Music copyright law is put into place to protect the rights of the musicians, producers, songwriters and other persons involved in the original creation of a piece of music. When enacted, it serves to prevent the illegal sharing, misuse or distribution of that content through unauthorized mediums.
But, what does that mean exactly and what or who does it cover? Let’s take a deeper look.
Does the Law Affect Me as a Listener?
If you legally pay for a song online or in the store, then pop it into your car radio or onto your smartphone and just blast it in your car with friends, you aren’t doing anything wrong. You don’t need a license or special permission to enjoy music that you rightfully own. That’s why musicians do what they do. They want you to enjoy their hard work and they want to become a household name that you tell all your best buds about.
They don’t, however, want you burning copies of that CD to hand out to your crew for free, using it in your videos (however handmade and shaky they may be) or affixing it as background music to your ad campaign.
The same goes for the radio. You can stream your favorite radio show in your vehicle or at home without fear of repercussion. Why? There is already a blanket license set in place at the radio station that covers all the music it broadcasts. Thus, as it travels over the airwaves and into your speaker system, it’s covered and so are you, given that you don’t charge anyone to just come over, sit in your living room and enjoy the country countdown on Sunday afternoon. Once you start asking listeners to pay, that’s when you lose the private home exemption policy and start collecting fines.
When Do I Need a License?
Are you planning to play music at a public event? If so, you’ll need a license to do so. The person who holds the copyright to the song or musical composition in question is legally the only person allowed to perform it for a public audience. While that knowledge might not stop your crazy aunt from hopping on stage at the next family wedding and belting out “Wind Beneath My Wings” it should be in the back of your mind as a conscious music consumer.
The catch? If the piece is found in the Public Domain, qualifies as royalty free music or falls under the category of “fair use” then you are off the hook. Not sure what constitutes as fair use? You can research the basics of the doctrine to understand the four main factors that play into it. In short, they are:
Whether or not you intend to use the piece for a commercial or non-profit purpose
The nature of the copyrighted piece itself
How much of the piece you intend to use compared to the length of the piece as a whole
How your use will affect the overall market for the copyrighted piece
Drawing the Public vs. Private Line
Still confused about what is private and what is public? That is to be expected. The lines are blurred and gray at best. While the Music Licensing Act, enacted in 1998, served to clear up a bit of confusion, myriad court cases still upheld rulings that declare the public use of a copyrighted piece is an infringement with the exception of the following cases:
Radio stations, jukebox operators, bar/nightclub establishments
Hotels that stream radio music in their lobbies or hallways for guests to hear
Intercom systems that play music for on-hold callers
Now, though that Act still stands, it has been modernized to account for size restrictions, type of equipment used and the type of establishment in question. For example, bars and restaurants that are larger than 3,750 square feet now must pay a fee to broadcast the radio to their customers. Establishments smaller than that are exempt from that payment. In a similar vein, stores that are larger than 2,000 square feet are required to pay the fine, while those under the limit are not.
Further complicating the matter are the restrictions around specific types of stereo systems. Is your public establishment using fewer than six external speakers with fewer than four speakers inside each room? If so, it doesn’t matter your size and you’re free to broadcast the radio or television for free. Yet, if it’s a CD or live cover song you want to play in lieu of the radio broadcast, those fees still apply.
Moving Forward Ethically and Successfully
As music enthusiasts, we all have our genres, artists and specific songs that bring us alive and that we understandably want to share with others. Yet, before you start playing “Free Bird” at that retirement dinner, posting videos of popular cover songs on your public social media channel or illegally copying purchased music to distribute within your circle, consider the artists who worked tirelessly to create that content originally. There is indeed a time and a place for everything, and those are the two main axises on which the issue of music copyright law ultimately turns.