September 01, 2003
Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio September 2003 Current Issue
September 2003 lawandplan.gifPLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:

The Law & the Planner

By Jonathan T. Howe, Esq.


Online downloads and other abuses strike sour notes for planners

In the early ’90s, the music industry cracked down on meeting professionals for allowing the public performance of copyrighted music without obtaining a license and paying royalties.

Today, we face the relatively new issue of the rampant copyright-free “sharing” of music on the Internet, bringing with it new wrinkles in the way music can be used in public.

The Recording Industry Association of America recently filed suit against 18 retail businesses for allegedly reselling CDs that had been taken off of the Internet or otherwise copied without permission from or payment of royalties to the copyright holder. That’s because the copyright holder is protected by a “bundle of rights.” This means, in addition to the public performance right, the holder has the right to license the reproduction or copy of his or her copyrighted material in various formats, including CDs, as well as the rights to distribute, display and control others’ use of the work in derivative fashions.

Additionally, those who have been downloading music off the Internet are being challenged and will face possible prosecution in both civil and criminal cases for their appropriation of copyrighted materials without permission.

It has been a long time since any serious legal actions concerning music licensing have been brought to bear upon meeting professionals. That does not mean, however, that planners should become cavalier in their responsibilities under the copyright laws of the United States.

One law that often is misunderstood is the incorporation of copyrighted music into another format. For example, a planner decides to videotape various activities that take place during the course of an event, several of which feature music. During the final-night banquet, the group is shown the edited video, which includes the same music played while filming occurred.

While most meeting professionals obtain a music license for public performances at an event, does the license cover the right to include the same music in a tape? The answer is a resounding “no.”

To comply with the law, planners must obtain a “sync license” from the song’s publisher, rather than from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) or the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (SESAC), the three major agencies that oversee the rights to public performances of a song.

A sync license covers the “synchronization” or the mechanical right to manufacture and distribute a record, CD or tape for a specific copyrighted piece of music.

While the answer to the legality of transferring copyright music to other formats might seem cut-and-dried, other problems remain.

Trade shows organizers and promoters comprise another group that needs to be aware of music licensing laws.

These industry professionals can be held “vicariously liable” if their exhibitors use music without a license, in the same way commercial landlords of malls and stores are held vicariously liable for tenants who play music in their stores without first obtaining licenses or paying royalties. Exhibitors should be made aware of the legal implications.

Music licensing is a professional and legal requirement. It has always been our advice to clients that they need to be very careful anytime they suspect they might be bending or outright breaking the rules.

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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