Restaurant Owner Ordered To Pay BMI $30,450 For 'Illegally Playing' Four Unlicensed Songs
from the the-riaa's-statutory-claims-now-seem-almost-reasonable dept
Most reasonable people would agree that the RIAA’s incredibly high statutory fees for infringement are ridiculous. Of course, this is why reasonable people aren’t allowed anywhere near the royalty collecting process. BMI, on the other hand, is right in the middle of the royalty racket and has just wrapped up a successful lawsuit against Fosters, a North Carolina restaurant. For all its hard work “protecting songwriters,” BMI will be receiving $30,450 for four “illegally played songs.” In addition, Fosters has been ordered to pay $10,700 in legal fees.
According to BMI, the royalty collection agency made numerous attempts to collect a yearly fee from Foster’s (currently $6,060), but had no success:
Broadcast Music Incorporated sued Fosters and claimed in court documents that it called the restaurant 56 times and mailed 29 letters. BMI says Fosters ignored its requests to get a license to play music.
“We’ve been attempting to resolve this for two years now,” said Robbin Ahrold, BMI’s vice president of corporate communications and marketing. “It is our obligation when we sign an agreement with these songwriters to be diligent and do what we can do to collect their royalties.”
Fosters’ owners have declined to comment on the situation and the filed documents only represent BMI’s side of the story. However, reading through the filed communication, an interesting fact jumps out. BMI began sending communication regarding the restaurant’s lack of proper licensing back in September of 2009, but it wasn’t until May of 2010 that BMI even bothered to visit Fosters to verify that the business was actually playing unlicensed music. (From page 32 of the PDF.)
Due to your lack of response, BMI found it necessary to have our music researcher conduct our own primary research into the music use [sic] at your business. That music researcher visited your business and confirmed that you are in fact publicly performing music which would require a public performance license.
So, let me get this straight: BMI, out of the blue, starts sending letters demanding payment for music licenses. Restaurant owner logically wonders why he should pay someone he’s probably never heard of over $6,000 a year in order to have music reach his diners’ ears. BMI continues on like any other collection agency, sending letter after letter demanding payment. Owner still figures this is some sort of quasi-legal shakedown and checks into his options. (The letter on page 31 of the PDF begins with “I understand that you are licensed, or are considering licensing with another performing right [sic] organization and are questioning the need for a BMI Music License.”) Only after failing to get Fosters to write them a check for its “services” does BMI even bother to see if it’s barking up the right legal tree.
To make matters worse, even if BMI was successful in extracting a “music license” fee from Fosters, there’s nothing preventing ASCAP or anyone else adding to the restaurant’s Accounts Payable folder. And while Fosters may no longer be the target (the restaurant closed recently for matters “unrelated to the lawsuit”), BMI’s shakedown attempts are still ongoing. Despite BMI’s claims that “lawsuits are rare” (undoubtedly, they prefer settlements), this statement paints a much different picture:
[BMI] has sued Alley Cat and Andrew Blair’s, both in Charlotte, Sharpshooters Sports Bar in Jacksonville, Forty Rod Roadhouse in Mint Hill and White Owl Tavern in Mooresville. WRAL News found a total of 38 suits filed across the country this year.
Of course, BMI has this story posted at its website, touting it as a report that “explores the value of music and the costs of infringement.” It also plays up the Herculean effort it took to mail 29 nearly-identical letters (a close look at the filing reveals multiple copies of the same letter) and make 56 phone calls over a 17-month period. There’s no mention of the fact that BMI seemed to have little interest in verifying that it had a valid claim against Fosters until the restaurant refused to cut them a $6,000 check.
At the end of the day, a Pyrrhic victory is still a victory, no matter how much goodwill gets destroyed in the process. It always helps with the collection cause when a case goes your way. It makes those legal threats just a bit more threatening, and you can’t properly “protect the copyrights of your songwriters” without the legal guns to back it up.