No business owner wants to break the law. But when you're looking at a letter that suggests you're breaking the law unless you pay hundreds of dollars, you might be tempted to hedge your bets.

If you play music in your business without a license or permission from the copyright holder, you could be breaking the law. These are the very real financial consequences that can take hold if you are caught.

Fines You Might Pay

There are several performing rights organizations (PROs) that administer copyright on behalf of people who create music. These PROs follow the rules enshrined in American copyright law.

When these organization have evidence that you are using music without the legal right to do so, they might reach out to you with a letter that demands payment based on what the organization assumes about:

The numbers cited in the letters are not fines per se. They are fees that the organization expects you to pay. But if you do not pay those fees, you may be subject to fines outlined in copyright law.

Chapter 5 of American copyright law specifies statutory damages, or fees. Those cannot be lower than $750, according to the law, or more than $30,000. However, if the court determines that your use of the music is somehow willful, the court could increase the damages to $150,000.

In order to gather those fees, PROs must take you to court. They can build a case that asks for these fees for every single instance of music you played. As you might imagine, the fees can add up quickly.

In an article published by The Corvallis Advocate, the reporter suggests that PROs hire undercover, contract staff who enter public spaces and make notes about the music they hear. They may write down song titles, the number of people in the room, or the volume of the music. All of these notes could be used to determine how big the fine should be if you don't have the proper licenses.

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An article in Tech Dirt makes the scope of fines clear. As reporters discovered, a restaurant owner was asked to pay a PRO more than $30,000 for playing just four songs without a license. That big fine came about, BMI suggests, because the owners of that establishment were sent multiple letters over the years, which they never responded to. It is possible that the record of neglect made the harsh punishment more likely.

What Can You Do Instead?

If you are contacted by a PRO with a demand for payment for past use of music without a license, you may be required to pay that fee. But if you haven't been tapped yet, you have an opportunity to get your business in order now before the demands begin.

At Cloud Cover Music, we can offer you music you can play legally, and our fees are lower than those charged by most PROs. Contact us for a demonstration and more information.