Singing & Copyright
March 8, 2014 3:15 PM   Subscribe

Our group is a charitable/educational one. We do not charge admission to our meetings, but do pass a hat to collect donations to cover expenses. We'd like to sing a popular song or 2 as a group, with several members providing musical accompaniment. We certainly don't want to violate copyright. Are we expected to get permission or pay the copyright holders? Please provide cites/links; thanks!
posted by dancing leaves to Law & Government (9 answers total)
All you would need is a cover license, which is very inexpensive ($15).

That said, if none of this is going to be filmed or released more broadly (or sold!), I probably would sweep it under fair use and not give it much more thought than that. If you are ever going to make a cd or something like that, obtaining a cover is the legal thing to do.
posted by rawralphadawg at 3:25 PM on March 8, 2014

Response by poster: $15 per song? That won't work; we'll be singing 3-4 different songs every time we meet, probably at least once a month (eventually more often).

The singing is only to enjoy singing together and to enhance a sense of community within the group. It is not performance at all and will *not* be recorded.
posted by dancing leaves at 3:32 PM on March 8, 2014

It's possible that you do not, but it likely depends on the precise nature of your organization and the meetings that you're holding. There are 2 major performing rights organizations in the US, ASCAP and BMI. They cover all sorts of business that either play pre-recorded music or host live performances of music, which it sounds like your event sort of is.

Here's the language from ASCAP's FAQ:

A public performance is one that occurs either in a public place or any place where people gather (other than a small circle of a family or its social acquaintances). A public performance is also one that is transmitted to the public; for example, radio or television broadcasts, music-on-hold, cable television, and by the internet. Generally, those who publicly perform music obtain permission from the owner of the music or his representative. However, there are a few limited exceptions, (called "exemptions") to this rule. Permission is not required for music played or sung as part of a worship service unless that service is transmitted beyond where it takes place (for example, a radio or television broadcast). Performances as part of face to face teaching activity at a non-profit educational institutions are also exempt.

Assuming you're in the US, you can contact ASCAP or BMI or both to ask whether your group singing counts as a performance, and if it does, if your group falls under the exemption and if it doesn't, how much it would cost to get a license.

Or you can choose to fly under the radar and count on the fact that you won't get caught because there's very little chance that anyone out there in the licensing world knows about your group.

You should also ask whether the venue you meet in already holds a license. Someone in their management office will know.
posted by jacquilynne at 3:36 PM on March 8, 2014

Response by poster: We are currently meeting at a church.
posted by dancing leaves at 3:37 PM on March 8, 2014

Back in the 20th Century, when I used to sing in a couple of choirs, we asked why the music we used was so expensive. Turns out, buying the music gave the school rights to perform it as well. Mind you, we were educational and not commercial so it might not apply in your case.
posted by fiercekitten at 4:03 PM on March 8, 2014

17 USC § 110, "Limitations on exclusive rights: Exemption of certain performances and displays" says:
Notwithstanding the provisions of section 106, the following are not infringements of copyright:…
(4) performance of a nondramatic literary or musical work otherwise than in a transmission to the public, without any purpose of direct or indirect commercial advantage and without payment of any fee or other compensation for the performance to any of its performers, promoters, or organizers, if—
(A) there is no direct or indirect admission charge…
I'd sing to your heart's content with a clear conscience.
posted by grouse at 5:08 PM on March 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you are talking about Christian worship music, licensing is done through CCLI. If you're meeting in a church, they likely already have a license. I believe fees are based on avg attendance and 99% of popular Christian/worship music is covered. Whether or not you need to pay for a license seems to depend on if you are physically making copies of the sheet music or projecting the words to the songs:

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Licensing
Why does my church need a license?
Churches often face copyright infringement issues in two vital areas:
copying music without permission, and
showing videos/movies without authorization.
CCLI provides practical licensing solutions in both areas.
We only project songs. Do we need a license?
In most cases, yes. Entering and storing copyrighted song lyrics on a computer without permission of the copyright owner is a reproduction copying activity and is a violation of the Federal Copyright Law.
posted by jpdoane at 9:30 PM on March 8, 2014

As grouse notes, private singing (not a performance, not recorded) is not covered by copyright law, anymore than I have to send Daft Punk royalties everytime I butcher "Get Lucky" in the shower.
posted by jb at 8:54 AM on March 9, 2014

Response by poster: Someone asked backchannel what country --> USA.

The music will not be religious, but secular songs, from modern stuff back through pop classics.

The group will eventually be a non-profit, again not religious, but perhaps educational(?).
posted by dancing leaves at 4:36 AM on May 4, 2014

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