What is a public performance license?

A public performance license is permission to play in public a song that someone else wrote. The most common use of public performance licensing is to play popular music at a bar, club, restaurant or retail store. Public performance licenses are also required to perform live music, such as at concerts.

Do you need a public performance license?

Whenever you perform in public a song you did not write, or play recorded music in public, such as at a club, restaurant, concert, on the radio, or streaming on the Internet, you might need to obtain Public Performance Rights.

Business owners in the United States should contact the three rights agencies that handle all public performance licensing in the U.S., ASCAP.com, BMI.com, and SESAC.com, to inquire about licensing for their venues. Expect to report your playlists to these agencies, and share a small percentage of your revenues for royalties, which the agencies then distribute to the copyright holders.

In most cases these rights are covered by the venue, so small indie artists, educators, and DJs often don't need to secure these for private events. Also, most radio stations handle their own public performance licensing, so playing live public radio at the venue is usually fine. If you are unsure about your scenario, you should ask the venue or contact ASCAP.com, BMI.com, or SESAC.com for details.

A public performance license is required no matter how small a portion of the song you use. There are some exceptions where a public performance license is not required: You don't need a public performance license for songs that you wrote yourself or songs that are in the public domain.

Who gets paid?

A public performance license in the United States pays a royalty to the copyright holder of the composition (song). This is typically the composer or their publisher. However, sometimes rights are sold. If public performance rights are sold, a song might have a new owner, other than the original composer or publisher. All public performance royalties in the United States are collected by three agencies: ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. How much you pay for your public performance license is based on a number of variables, and is determined by these agencies.

How do you get a public performance license?

To obtain a public performance license in the United States, please contact these agencies: ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC.

When should you have your public performance licensing in place?

Public performance licenses must be secured before playing copyrighted music in public. New business owners should anticipate this expense and incorporate public performance licensing into their plans before opening their doors. Existing business owners that wish to reconcile past transgressions or add public performance rights, should contact ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC to get started.

When happens if you don't get a license?

We are not in the business of enforcement. However all three agencies actively seek out copyright violators. The result can be surprise expenses, bad press, shutting down the music, and in some cases legal action. Will you get caught? Maybe. Maybe not. But there are many more reasons to do things right than just the fear of getting caught. Check out all our reasons to get a license.

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