ASCAP Sues 9 NY Restaurants Over Song Royalties

What’s a restaurant without some music to set the mood? A restaurant without royalty payments, according to granddaddy ASCAP. The century-old performance-rights organization, which stands for American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, is cracking down on ambiance this week. Lawsuits directed at 9 restaurants in Long Island, New York aim to pick up the tab for unlicensed music played in the eateries.

According to Federal copyright law, anyone who wishes to play or perform copyrighted music in a commercial establishment must first acquire a license to do so. The issuers of the licenses will then pay royalties to the copyright holders of the music, be it the publisher or the performers themselves. The premise is that the income of the business will increase as their atmosphere is enhanced. Though it may seem unlikely, hundreds of thousands of restaurants voluntarily adhere to this law and pay their dues each year.

In a series of U.S. District Court lawsuits that are just now coming to light, ASCAP began knocking on the doors of nine New York (predominantly Long Island) restaurants this past August. The apparent troublemakers include MacArthur Park in Rockville Centre, BobbiQue in Patchogue, Elijah Churchill’s Public House in Northport, Giacomo Jack’s in Amityville, The Homestead in Oyster Bay, Plattduetsche Park Restaurant in Franklin Square, Sergio’s in Massapequa, and Puglia’s of Garden City. ASCAP, which represents over 500,000 songwriters, composers, and music publishers, apparently spent around 8 years trying to make these restaurants obtain licenses.

The suits will bring about court orders to make the restaurants stop playing the music. In addition, ASCAP is seeking anywhere from a few hundred bucks to $150,000 in damages, dues which are generally at the judge’s discretion in these types of cases.

For each lawsuit, the organization has specified a handful of unlicensed songs that were overheard in the restaurants on certain dates throughout the year. “Somebody’s Baby” which was recorded by Jackson Browne in 1982 and co-written with Daniel Kortchmar, was apparently one of the culprits at MacArthur Park on Feburary 7th, 2014.

“Every restaurant around here has music,” said Luciano Fiorvanti, manager of Sergio’s in Massapequa. “Why are they bothering us?” Fiorvanti went on to explain that the music cited in his case came from satellite radio and the occasional karaoke night.

According to Vincent Candilora, Executive Vice President of ASCAP, the non-for-profit files between 100-150 of these lawsuits annually. He fears that the lawsuits may have to increase, due to the diminishing incomes of music creators in the struggling industry. However, Candilora elucidated that the dollar amounts in question are usually relatively small. An establishment with a 100-customer capacity (based on its fire code) only has to dish out $705 a year to ASCAP, which comes to $1.93 a day.

But defending restaurant owners have noted that in most situations, ASCAP is not the only licensing entity to require fees. Stephen Wirth, who owns a restaurant in Riverhead called Digger’s, revealed his total annual cost to be over $4,000. “We respect that songwriters need to receive their royalties,” said Wirth’s lawyer, Todd Wengrovsky. “It’s just a very difficult position for these small business owners to be thrust into.”

In the recent battles, The Homestead co-owner Mike Ringle is placing the damage at around $15,000 for their Oyster Bay restaurant. This not only includes legal fees, but three years’ worth of unpaid licensing. From there on out, he estimates their costs to be around $1,400 a year.

“I understand the licensing and all that,” said Ringle. “but I’m not Westbury Music Fair or Nassau Coliseum. I’m a small restaurant.”

Chris Hickey, Regional Director of the New York State Restaurant Association, is displeased with the lawsuits. Among the many health code compliances and licenses required to serve up meals, he feels that ASCAP’s plea is just another tough financial obstacle for restaurants to overcome. “In the restaurant industry so many people are holding out their hands to you,” he said. “That’s how our members look at it.”