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Originally published August 1, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 2, 2007 at 10:28 AM

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Music licensing group's targets include local restaurants

A Seattle restaurant is among more than two dozen venues swept up in a music-licensing crackdown for allegedly failing to pay royalties...

Seattle Times business reporter

A Seattle restaurant is among more than two dozen venues swept up in a music-licensing crackdown for allegedly failing to pay royalties to play copyrighted music in public.

Without a special license, owners of bars, clubs and restaurants could be sued for playing any one of 8 million recorded songs, even from their own CDs.

The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) says that equates to performing copyrighted music without permission, and the group is going after local businesses that haven't paid them for the privilege.

On Monday, ASCAP said it had filed 26 separate infringement actions against nightclubs, bars and restaurants in 17 states. Among them is a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Seattle against the Ibiza Dinner Club downtown.

The group sued to spread the word that performing such music without permission is a federal offense, said Vincent Candilora, ASCAP senior vice president for licensing.

On Tuesday, Ibiza owner Abi Eshagi said he had not received information from ASCAP regarding a lawsuit and insisted his restaurant did not violate any rules.

ASCAP says that besides broadcasting songs over the radio, television and Internet, the definition of performing copyrighted music includes playing it "any place where people gather," with the exception of small private groups.

For restaurants, that includes playing songs as background music, by a DJ and even music-on-hold over phone lines, according to ASCAP's Web site.

"As long as it's [played] outside a direct circle of friends and family, it is considered a public performance," Candilora said. "A musical composition is somebody's property."

ASCAP alleged that a DJ at Ibiza played three copyrighted pop songs without paying a licensing fee, which Candilora calculated would have cost Ibiza $979 a year, considering the size of the venue and the type of performance.

"I think it's absurd," said Eshagi. "Not only DJs have bought that music, I also subscribe to an online music-use service, and I'm also paying the cable company for the same thing. I don't know how many times we have to pay for a song."

ASCAP, whose 300,000 members include such artists as Coldplay, Dr. Dre, Avril Lavigne and Elvis Costello, has investigators working in cities across the country to identify new restaurants, bars, theme parks or other establishments where music is used, Candilora said.

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They visit venues to find out what songs are being played, then check to see whether the owner paid for a license.

While many business owners may not be aware of it, such legal action is becoming common, said Eric Steuer, creative director of Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization that has been critical of current copyright laws and supports alternative licensing plans.

The hardball legal tactics resemble when the recording industry sues students, Steuer said.

"What I don't think many venue owners — nor probably the majority of DJs — understand is that almost all of the music that they play requires a performance license," Steuer said. "I think that there's a misunderstanding that because music is 'indie' or not widely known, that it's OK to play."

Many DJs get music free from record labels so they can play and promote it, Steuer added. "I'm sure that they'd never imagine that they're committing a federal offense by playing this stuff without paying for the right to play it."

ASCAP is seeking up to $30,000 in damages per infringement from Ibiza. Candilora said the group has tried for two years to get the restaurant to comply with its requests.

Eshagi said he plans to fight. He said he was contacted by an ASCAP representative by phone and had asked the group to send a list of songs they claimed were infringed.

Eshagi said he told ASCAP he pays for two music-subscription services.

"I don't really know what is the basis for [a lawsuit]," he said.

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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