public performance license

Public Performance License: A Handy Guide to Playing Live Music

Nicole McCray
Nicole McCray

If you’ve ever been in a public place and listened to music, you can be assured that the business has been granted permission to play or perform that song with a public performance license. Independent artists have long covered other’s original works in places like concert venues, local bars, and outdoor pavilions.

Musicians also know that to do these types of covers, they need to have a public performance license. Obtaining a public performance license to play live music is a way to ensure that you’re covered if the original composer or publishers discover you are performing their songs. Without it, there is a high risk of copyright infringement and the chance of a lawsuit with extremely expensive penalties. 

If you aren’t familiar with public performance licensing, the handy guide and outline below will help you distinguish the differences between songs and recordings, copyrights to musical tracks. 

Music and Copyrights

To understand the differences between a song and a sound recording, you must understand that a song has two separate copyrights. Those copyrights are:

  • The song itself consists of the melody and the lyrics that accompany it.
  • The sound recording of the song, which is exactly as it sounds – the recorded version.

Most musicians who create original songs own both rights to them. In some cases, the song’s copyright can have ownership from a music publishing company and the sound recording copyright is owned by the record label that releases the recording.

When you want to perform a live version of a song, you must know who owns the copyrights for each part. Then, you have to be sure to register and obtain the proper music license before you can perform it. 

What is a Public Performance Music License?

public performance license

Music licenses are a way to protect musicians and independent artists from the use of their copyrighted works. Public performance licenses, in particular, ensure that an artist’s music isn’t being played publicly in other locations without granting credit or due royalty (money). 

Public Performance licenses in a nutshell are an agreement between a music user (performer or business) and the owner of the composition copyrights (musician) granting permission to play the song in public, online, or on the radio. The agreement is often referred to as public performance rights or performing rights. The license is designed to enable and encourage music creators to receive compensation for the music they create.

Many people dismiss the idea of having a license with the idea that a music artist would want their music shared with the public. While it is true that musicians would enjoy having the visibility, the artist doesn’t get any recognition, either, meaning that someone else can essentially be passing off the music as their own.

Musicians understand that it is challenging enough to make money as a performing artist. Digital streaming in music today offers little compensation for a songwriter’s hard work. So, it helps to have protection like a music license in place to ensure that credit is given where it’s due.

Music Licensing for Public Performance

The public performance of a song will always require a music license. It doesn’t matter where you play the song, if it’s in any sort of public setting, you need a public performance license. Likewise, businesses like stores, restaurants, and venues need one even if they are just playing the recorded song since it still contains copyright.

According to The Copyright Act, a public performance is defined as meaning that it’s anything beyond playing in your home. If you are breaking out the guitar to play around a circle of family and friends, you don’t need a license. But, if you are using social media for your business, in most cases you may need one.

For example, consider if you have a YouTube channel for your brand as a small business. Any content creators using songs, recordings and tracks should have the music licensed on YouTube. Even if it’s background music that you’re using while you speak over it, such as with a podcast, you need to examine whether a license is needed. YouTube constantly will flag content for music copyright, which also means you cannot monetise your videos.

When You Need a Public Performance License

public performance license

For most business owners, public performance licenses are necessary. Opening a business’s doors to living music without a license can be detrimental if not done properly. Even if you were to play just a portion of a well-known song without a license, you are putting the business and yourself at risk.

In some cases, social media and other online websites that allow the use of music typically have a license already in place. But – you should ensure that you take the time to determine this before using any music in your content or a video. For example, if you use short clips of music on Instagram as seen in stories – these are already covered and don’t require the need for a license. 

Likewise, if you have a business where you use sheet music, such as if you conduct music lessons, they are for educational purposes only. The rental or purchase of sheet music when you play it in an individual setting is not authorised for public performance and therefore would require a license. 

Consider if you teach piano; if you have students learning well-known songs on the piano, the sessions where you’re helping your students learn don’t require a license. But, if you then have those students perform the songs live on a stage in a public venue, a public performance license should be in place.

Obtaining a Public Performance License in Australia

Most public performance licenses, including publicly playing music, theatrical performances, releasing music are issued by a Performing Rights Organisation (PRO), and in Australia, the dual governing  PROs are APRA AMCOS

The PROs control the songs and issue the license so that you can perform publicly while ensuring the musician or recording artist is given their due royalties. The body also offers licenses for audio visual productions and educational licenses.                                                             

The fees associated with each PRO can vary, and are based on numerous factors surrounding the musical work. It also depends on things like what type of venue you are performing in, how you plan to perform it, and how many times you’ll perform it. 

The average cost of an annual license fee through a PRO is approximately $100 per year for a small business or musician. Bigger businesses, such as a concert hall where you may be performing can be upwards of the thousands per license. You can negotiate the costs with the PRO for an agreed amount.

Non-profits, educational activities, and worship services are usually exempt from needing a public performance license. This can change, however, if the production or music is being broadcast in some manner (i.e. Facebook Live). For example, presentations or seminars that use music for business or commercial use should still have permission to play or perform the music, even if in parody form.

Having a Public Performance License Keeps You Safe and Secure

If you’re not sure whether you need a public performance license or not, you’re better off contacting the PRO to find out. The organisations work to target businesses in the event of unauthorised public performances of copyrighted music.

Without a license, you’re committing copyright infringement. Depending on the severity of the situation, different actions may be taken, including paying fines, or at the very least, bad press for you as a performer. 

When playing live music, you must take the time to contact the venue to see if they own a license. Conduct your research, and obtain a public performance license before you play so that you’re not caught in violation. 

Confused about what Australian music licensing looks like for your venue? We’ve broken down the components for you here

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