April 01, 2000
Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio April 2000 Current Issue
April 2000 lawandplan.gifPLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:

The Law & the Planner

By Jonathan T. Howe, Esq.


What you should know about using copyrighted songs for an event

Not much has happened with music licensing since 1991, when agreements for music use at meetings went into effect. But when it comes to paying fees, planners still seem to be lost.

The Constitution of the United States expressly provides for ownership rights to copyrighted materials. To have the legal protection of a copyright, the author/composer must have produced an “original” work in a “tangible medium,” i.e., something that can be copied.

Dealing with the public performance of music, the bundled rights of the copyright owner are as follows.

  • Reproduction. The exclusive right to reproduce the work either as copies or in other forms.
  • Derivative. The exclusive right to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work. This means any recasting or adaptation based upon the copyrighted work.
  • Distribution. Exclusive control of the first publication distribution of copies or photo records of the work, whether by sale, gift, loan, lease or rental.
  • Display.Exclusive control of the public display of the copyrighted work.
  • Performance. Exclusive control of who can perform the work in public and under what circumstances.
    Three societies act on behalf of the composer: The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers; Broadcast Music Inc., and SESAC Inc. ASCAP and BMI offer specific agreements for meetings, conventions and trade shows. SESAC is not part of any industrywide agreement, but it does have licenses available.

    All three provide licenses for multiple use of music in business settings. The BMI multiuse agreement covers playing music in an office environment or at meetings held by the organization, as long as the primary attendees are employees or are related to the organization. ASCAP’s agreement covers the use of music at all locations, including those where day-to-day operations are conducted but that generally are not accessible to the public.

    Neither agreement covers the use of music at meetings unless the activity is presented or sponsored solely by the licensee, is held entirely at its business location and is not open to the general public.

    ASCAP currently bases fees on the number of employees, with a minimum fee of $179 and maximum of $22,500. BMI’s minimum, also based on the number of employees, is $145, and it has no maximum.

    Planners taking a hard look at where they use music should ask whether the activities are related solely to the organization or involve people outside the organization. In the latter case, you will need additional licenses.

    For meetings, conventions or trade shows, planners also should ask the following.

  • Are we already covered? Find out if your organization has licenses in place.
  • How should I handle contracts with producers? Recognize that it is your organization that is required to have the licenses.
  • How many licenses do I need? You should have licenses with both BMI and ASCAP, unless you are sure only the music of one of these groups will be used. You also should consider a SESAC license.
  • How much do I pay? Check your licenses and your events. The calculation is easy, at least with BMI, and generally fees are due once a year.
  • What happens if I do not have a license? Usually you can negotiate a settlement for past transgressions.
  • For information, visit the societies’ Web sites (,,, which describe your obligations. You also can download music libraries and forms online. Jonathan T. Howe, Esq., is a senior partner in the Chicago and Washington, D.C., law firm of Howe & Hutton, Ltd., which specializes in meetings, travel and hospitality law. Legal questions can be e-mailed to him at

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