Legislature considers protecting bars from songwriters' reps

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You go to a bar or outdoor concert, and listen to a cover band. Or you sing karaoke at a tavern.

In any of those spots, the live renditions of songs -- “Hit Me with Your Best Shot" or "Bad to the Bone" or just about anything else – are supposed to earn royalties for the songwriters. And the venues providing the music are supposed to pay the royalties.

Broadcast Music Inc. and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers – known, respectively, as BMI and ASCAP -- collect those royalties for the songwriters, as does a European-based counterpart. The three organizations' agents visit bars, restaurants concerts, churches, farmers markets and other venues to check whether the royalty agreements are being complied with. The agreements are enforceable under federal law.

Bar owners complained to Rep. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, about these agents being rude, charging high fees on the spot and not providing documentation to back up their claims.

Consequently, Van De Wege introduced a bill in the Washington House that would require the music licensing agencies to take a variety of new steps. They would have to file an electronic copy of each performing rights contract with the Washington Secretary of State's office, provide 24 hours notice before personally visiting a business premises, provide proper identification and documents to an owner, and not use abusive or profane language in talking to the owner. The House passed the bill 92-6.

The Senate Commerce & Labor Committee held a hearing on Van De Wege's bill Friday. Van De Wege told the committee that the bill's intention is not to keep venue owners from paying royalties, but to ensure those owners are aware of what they are required to do and that licensing agencies don't bully the venue owners.

"It's very unclear to restaurant owners what their responsibilities are, and who the good actors are," said Trent House, representing the Washington Restaurant Association.

Songwriter Branden Daniel, front man for Seattle-based Branden Daniel & The Chics, said BMI and ASCAP are making sure he can make a living. He has written roughly 50 songs, with several covered by other bands playing in the Northwest. A venue’s failure to pay royalties means he does not get paid for much of his work.

"The owner of a bar benefits when music is played,” Daniel said. “What's the difference between paying for music usage in an establishment and paying a liquor distributor?”

He added, “I make less than those bar owners."

BMI and ASCAP representatives Brian Case and Lisa Thatcher told the committee a cover band playing a song is no different from a person using Microsoft software when it comes to the requirement that someone somewhere along the distribution chain pay royalties. They voiced concerns about the state possibly trying to pre-empt federal copyright laws, and proposed changes to Van De Wege's bill to ensure that does not happen. And they said that sometimes venue owners are rude and abusive to BMI and ASCAP representatives.

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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8