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Play it again ... and we'll sue

Venues for up-and-coming artists are disappearing as copyright licensing fees get stiffer, although some relief is in sight.

By Tim HoltContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / January 9, 2009

Tough choices: Coffeehouse owner Bruce Schrader had to shut down open-mic night.

Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor


After a 30-year run, the owner of the Sacred Grounds Coffee House in San Francisco has shut down the Thursday night open mics. Mamma Llama, a small coffeehouse in Weaverville, Calif., no longer features musicians from near and far. Open mics at the Ragged Edge Coffee House in Gettysburg, Pa., are down from 50 to 60 audience members to no more than 15 these days.

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These grass-roots music events, spawning grounds for the next generation of musical talent, have come up against the demands of US copyright law, as enforced by a handful of companies who act as collection agents for songwriters and composers. The law states that no performer in a public venue can present someone else's copyrighted music without their permission and, usually, without compensating them. A number of agencies, chief among them Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), charge music venues an annual copyright "license fee" ranging from $300 to nearly $10,000 for the privilege of presenting someone else's music.

Much of the music at those Ragged Edge open mics was written by the performers, but there was also cover music from the likes of Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead. ASCAP wanted a license fee of $900 a year from Ragged Edge owner Jake Schindel. He paid up and, to recoup that expense, started charging a cover fee, which caused attendance to dwindle. He was losing money, stopped paying the fee, and has cut back his musical offerings to unadvertised – and often poorly attended – events.

Bruce Schrader, who owns the Sacred Grounds Coffee House, tried to keep his open mics going by having his performers sign waivers stating they were playing only their original songs. Nevertheless, he was faced with demands for $6,000 in license fees from the agencies and had to shut down the weekly event last year.

"Their argument," Mr. Schrader said, "was that I couldn't possibly know whether the performers were singing any of the millions of copyrighted songs they represent, so I'd better get a license if I didn't want to get sued."