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Congress Will Write Next Verse in Music-Licensing Saga

September 2017
by Linda Jones McKee

Washington, D.C.—One of the problems for wineries who want to play music or have musicians perform live in their tasting rooms is they have no way to find out which songs are copyrighted and which performing-rights organization protects the copyright of a given song.

U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin and co-sponsor Rep. Suzan DelBene of Washington introduced legislation July 20 in the U.S. House of Representatives that would require the Register of Copyrights to establish and maintain a searchable digital database of historical and current copyright ownership and licensing information for musical works subject to copyright law. Once the bill, the “Transparency in Music Licensing and Ownership Act,” is passed, it will be easier for wineries (or any other venue) playing live or recorded music to comply with copyright laws.

According to Tara Good, vice president of WineAmerica and an expert on music licensing for wineries, “Under the current music-licensing system, there is no centralized location to find out which performing-rights organizations (PROs) represent which songwriters. Under industry pressure, the four major PROs (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC and GMR) currently offer separate online databases. These databases are gated by heavy-handed legal language stating that its contents may not be up to date and therefore should not be used to make licensing decisions. Because wineries cannot reliably find out which PROs represent which music, they often are forced to purchase licenses from all four PROs. This drives up the cost of offering live music and, in many cases, exceeds a small venue’s budget, forcing them to cancel their live music program.

Under Sensenbrenner’s legislation, the Register of Copyrights must hire employees and/or contractors to create and maintain the database, enforce requests for information and spend the funds necessary to do so. The database must be accessible without charge on a website maintained by the Copyright Office, and that office will provide access to the website from It also must be searchable by any of the identifying fields set forth in the legislation and exportable in whole or in part to standard spreadsheet programs or in Extensible Markup Language and other formats as determined by the Copyright Office.

Other sections of the bill define who will supply the data for the database. If a winery makes a good-faith effort to use the database, and the PRO has not updated their information, the PRO can now only sue for actual damages rather than statutory damages, and that can be a difference of up to $150,000 per infringed song.

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