The ASCAP Police

“The dream police, they’re coming to arrest me, oh no.”

Even though you may know Cheap Trick’s “The Dream Police,” you may not know the ASCAP Police.  Before you scramble off looking for some rare vinyl, this is not about a song or an album.

“ASCAP” is the acronym for the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, which is a performance-rights organization.  It protects its members’ musical copyrights by monitoring public performances -- both broadcast and live -- of their music.  ASCAP collects licensing fees and distributes them to its members as royalties.  The licensing fees are paid by broadcasters, businesses, and venues that play music written by ASCAP members.

The concept is simple.  Got music on the elevator, get a license.  Got background music playing over the public address system, get a license.  Offer live music, get a license.  Offer an open mic night, get a license.  ASCAP is aggressive in pursuing fees for its members.

In fact, ASCAP can be so aggressive that, not so long ago, considerable debate existed about its possibly seeking license payments from consumers for ringtones played in public.  That possibility led to action by the federal government against ASCAP and a federal court decision clarifying that playing music in public without any commercial purpose does not infringe copyrights.

The ASCAP “Police” periodically visit places where music is played.  They ride elevators.  Hang out in restaurants.  Go to grocery stores.  Stop by your local club, cafe, or bar.  They are on the watch for non-licensed performances.  Yes, the ASCAP Police may be in your town right now.

Based on reports from its police, ASCAP demands licensing fees under threat of suit.  Many small business owners describe it more as a shakedown.  But a little research leads to the inevitable conclusion that the unlicensed public commercial use of copyrighted music is pretty much indefensible.  As “songwriters” with copyrighted music, we should receive royalties.  But the Lava Pups have not received a penny in royalties for plays of songs from Into the Flow.

In the zealous protection of its members -- we are not members -- and as a result of the publicity generated from our promotion of last October’s Monster Mash, the ASCAP Police called the Capitol Bowl.  That put the fear that the full force of the federal copyright laws would be brought to bear on a small business owner in West Sacramento.  Wide-ranging damages and penalties -- $750 to $30,000 per infringement.  Costs and attorneys’ fees.  Just for letting some local bands play!

So as we packed up after the Monster Mash, we were told that the ASCAP Police had called, that the cost of ASCAP did not fit into the current budget, that action by ASCAP was not a risk the business was willing to take, and that “that was your last show here until we figure out what to do.”

To paraphrase Cheap Trick:  “The ASCAP Police, they’re coming to arrest me, oh no.”


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