Does Florida Have Laws for Licensing Music?

What musicians can do to legally protect their songs

In 2016, the Tampa Bay Times reported on the story of a local bar that was forced to close after it was unable to pay a $30,000 settlement with BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.). The settlement was the result of a BMI lawsuit alleging the bar had failed to pay licensing fees for copyrighted music played by the bar's house band. And this particular bar was not alone: BMI sued over two dozen bars, restaurants, and nightclubs in the Tampa Bay area over similar violations, the paper noted.

Many businesses that use copyrighted music are genuinely unaware of their obligation to hold a license or pay fees. But ignorance of the law is never an excuse. While it might seem unfair for companies like BMI to go after Florida small business owners, keep in mind that songwriters and musicians also have the right to protect their works from illegal exploitation. Also note that legal action, or even the threat of a lawsuit, is always a last resort.

How Music Copyrights Work in the United States

Copyright has been around since the earliest days of the U.S. government. The very first copyright law adopted by Congress in 1790 allowed musical compositions to be copyrighted as books. Subsequent revisions to the law expressly authorized the copyright of musical works. Today, copyright applies not just to compositions themselves, but also the fixed recordings of songs, as well as their public performance.

Copyright initially belongs to the author of work—in this case, the original songwriter. However, most songwriters enter into publishing agreements with a music publisher, such as Sony/ATV or Warner Chappell Music, to actually exploit their songs in the marketplace. Under a publishing agreement, the songwriter will assign a portion of their copyright to the publisher in exchange for an advance of royalties.

The songwriter and publisher, in turn, will then sign an agreement with a performing rights organization (PRO), such as BMI or the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). The PRO essentially serves as a clearinghouse for anyone who wishes to publicly perform a copyrighted song. This includes, for instance, entering into licensing agreements with bars or clubs, which must pay a royalty based on how much music they use.

It is important to understand that just because someone purchases your song via an album or digital download, that does not automatically confer any performance rights on that buyer. In this context, a public performance means the song is played at an event beyond a normal circle of family friends. So if someone plays a song in their own home or at another purely private place, they do not need a license, even if other people are present. But if any portion of your song is used in a public or semi-public place, they do require your permission and/or a license from your PRO.

If you believe your music is being played without permission in Florida, reach out to an experienced attorney. For more information on this area of law, see our entertainment & sports overview.

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