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Adventures in Licensing, Part II: It’s Not Just About Live Music

On Behalf of | Nov 6, 2014 | Intellectual Property

In an earlier article, we discussed the importance of getting a license from ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, or all three before presenting live music at your bar, restaurant, or other venue. Purchasing blanket licenses from one or all of those organizations allows you avoid harsh copyright infringement penalties. As we’ve seen, these penalties can find you no matter how far off the beaten path your restaurant is, how unknown the band is, or how unlikely you think it is that the  music being played at your bar will be surveyed.

But what about showing major sporting events, HBO, or Netflix at your bar or restaurant? Can you broadcast the World Series, the Super Bowl, or the Game of Thrones season premiere? Believe it or not, the United States Code provides for some exceptions to broadcasts that would otherwise constitute copyright infringement, allowing you to freely engage in showing some of those, provided certain conditions are met.

If you are receiving an over-the-air broadcast of a sporting event televised on a major network like Fox, for example, it is perfectly legal to show it at your bar or restaurant provided that (1) you don’t charge for admission; (2) your establishment is smaller than 3,750 square feet; (3) you have no more than four televisions showing the broadcast; and (4) none of those televisions is larger than 55 inches. Yes, the law actually specifies qualifying square footage and screen size!

Over-the-air broadcasts, however, are increasingly becoming things of the past. Most establishments now receive their network programming through cable, satellite, or online streaming subscriptions, in which case copyright infringement cannot be avoided without a proper license, regardless of how few televisions are showing the broadcast or how small the screens. Unfortunately, the typical contract with FiOS, Comcast, Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, and others don’t include the proper licenses required for commercial or non-personal viewing. For example, if you plan to draw a die-hard baseball crowd to your bar during Game 7 of the World Series, you can put the game on as long as the above criteria are met and you’re receiving an over-the-air broadcast signal. If you happen to be a cable or satellite subscriber and have not purchased the appropriate license, however, showing that very same ballgame could result in steep fines and a lawsuit brought against you by your provider.

But there’s good news: just like in circumstances where you might find yourself purchasing a blanket license from a performing rights organization to facilitate the performance of live music at your bar or restaurant, many broadcast media providers offer affordable licenses that will allow you to show the big game, the big fight, or the big season finale of your favorite show without the fear of racking up damages to the tune of $150,000 per violation. Verizon, Time Warner, DirecTV, and others all offer business-level packages containing enhanced licenses for precisely such a purpose. Like in the case of live music, the cost of a license is much, much less than the cost of defending just a single copyright infringement lawsuit, so if part of your business’s appeal derives from showing sports or TV, the safe bet is to buy the appropriate license.

Frank Gulino is an associate attorney with Washington, DC business law firm Berenzweig Leonard. He can be reached at [email protected].