The Right to Publicly Perform is the fourth part in our series on what makes a Copyright. The prior three rights reviewed are linked below for you to get up to speed. To refresh, the six parts of copyright are:
- The right to reproduce the copyrighted work
- The right to prepare derivative works based upon the work
- The right to distribute copies of the work to the public
- The right to publicly perform the copyrighted work
- The right to publicly display the copyrighted work
- (sound recording only) The right to digitally transmit to publicly perform the copyrighted work
To try to get behind the curtain of copyright, we’re individually exploring each of these six rights. An understanding of each and how they operate will allow you, the creator, to be in a better position to take advantage of your copyright.
There are a couple words of caution. First, the practical effect of these exclusive rights will depend on the type of copyrighted work (literary works, musical works, motion pictures, sound recordings, etc.). Second, these are exclusive rights. The law allows only the copyright holder to exercise these rights.
IV. The Right to Publicly Perform the Copyrighted Work
The right to publicly perform means only the copyright owners, or others they authorize, may perform their works publicly.
This right prohibits would be thieves from performing a copyrighted work before the masses and profiting from that theft. As an exclusive right, anyone wishing to perform a copyrighted work publicly must first obtain permission from the copyright owners. Copyright owners, at least in the music industry, are often different from the people who created the work in the first place. How far this right extends depends on answering two questions.
- What acts does a performance cover?
- When is that performance public?
The definition of performance under the Copyright Act goes beyond the usual examples of live works.
The term performance certainly covers situations when a person executes a copyrighted work live. Examples of this include a band playing music in front of a crowd, a theater company performing a ballet before an audience, or people watching a film at the movie theater. However, it also covers analog or digital transmission of performances by radio, television, and internet streaming. Examples of transmitted performances include a song played on the radio, a recording of the ballet played on television, and a film screened for locals at a community park. A performance occurs when the work is done live and when someone transmits a recording of the work.
The definition of public under the Copyright Act means any group beyond family and close friends.
A performance is public when the work is performed: (1) in a place open to the public, or (2) at a place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances are gathered. In plain English, music you play for your family (3rd cousins need not apply) or close friends (not everyone on your Facebook friends list) will be a private performance. Putting out flyers for your upcoming rendition of Britney Spears’ greatest hits, however, would be a public performance. A performance is also public when you transmit the copyrighted work to a general audience. This happens when a radio station plays a song, a television show includes that song during a dramatic break up scene, or you stream the song from your internet radio station. Transmission of a performance will be public unless you restrict it to only your family or close friends. As a general rule, live or recorded performances that can reach more than a few people will be public performances.
The traditional right to public performance applies to musical works, but not sound recordings.
Copyright owners of musical works (songwriters and music publishers) gain the traditional right to public performance. Copyright owners of sound recordings (record labels), however, are left out in the cold. A musical work is the composition, arrangement, lyrics, and other details that embody a song. A sound recording is a specific performance of that musical work. A musical work results when a band gets together to create an album. A sound recording results when that same band goes into the studio to record the album. The practical effect of this distinction is that analog radio stations must obtain a license only for musical works before playing songs on the air. They don’t need permission from the owners of sound recordings that they actually broadcast. This is true even though radio stations would have nothing to play without these sound recordings.
Three U.S. Performance Rights Organizations (PRO’s) (BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC) handle the vast majority of licensing and royalty issues for musical works. There is a vast sea of musical works out there. PRO’s strive to organize this complex network by licensing musical works on behalf of songwriters and bands. The PRO’s then collect royalties for the licenses and send checks to the songwriters and bands. The PRO’s are certainly not charitable entities, however, and take a cut of the royalties to cover the expenses in managing the system. Some would say too big of a cut.
This oddity of the traditional public performance right has its roots in the history of Copyright. Copyright protection existed long before people could record music and sheet music (an example of musical works) was the standard. Copyright protection for musical works was necessary at that time, but obviously not so for non-existent sound recordings. Copyright law failed to keep up with evolving technology, however, when sound recordings emerged to provide people with a different way to access music.
Congress tried to fix the problem by passing the Digital Performance in Sound Recordings Act (DPSRA). This created the sixth right of Copyright: the right to perform publicly by digital transmission. The DPSRA did provide relief for sound recording owners, but also created a volatile two-class system. Internet radio stations like Pandora and Spotify now have to obtain licenses and pay royalties to copyright owners of musical and sound recordings. Analog radio stations, on the other hand, continue to enjoy preferential treatment and only have to answer to copyright owners of musical works. Analog radio stations have a huge financial advantage over internet radio stations as a result.
The right to public performance does have its limitations.
For every rule, there are exceptions. The right to public performance is no different. Charitable, non-profit, and educational groups may publicly perform copyrighted works without permission if it’s for a reason recognized by law. Certain businesses may also play copyrighted music without permission for their customers if they play by the rules.
- The business must receive the music from a licensed radio, cable, satellite, or television broadcast;
- The business must be on the smaller side;
- The business must play it only in their establishment;
- The business cannot charge an admission fee.
A club that charges admission to listen to a recording of the latest, greatest pop album is not going to fall into this exception. The ubiquitous Fair Use exception to copyright protection can come into play for the public performance right, too.
That’s a lot to go over! Go ahead and ask questions if you have them, or leave a comment if have an interesting anecdote about the public performance right.
– Ari Good, Esq.
Ari Good, JD LLM, a tax, aviation and entertainment lawyer, is the Shareholder of Good Attorneys At Law, P.A. Ari Mr. Good received his BA, With Distinction, from the University of Michigan in 1993. He graduated from the DePaul University College of Law in 1997 and received his LL.M. in Taxation from the University of Florida. Ari represents DJs, live musicians, fashion models and other entertainers in copyright, licensing and contract matters.
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