BMI Freaks Out Over TMZ Copyright Story

Why big-name musicians like The Rolling Stones and Weezer often sue small bars and restaurants.
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The TMZ story that BMI demanded a retraction of stated that bands like The Rolling Stones were responsible for "a bunch of small town bars possibly getting forced out of business "

Readers don't read TMZ for nuance, do they?

Apparently, Broadcast Music Inc., the organization that collects public performance royalties on behalf of songwriters, composers and music publishers, expects nothing less from the gossip site.

On Wednesday, TMZ reported about lawsuits filed by BMI against 12 bars and restaurants around the country. Never mind that BMI has literally sued hundreds of establishments over the years that play music without a license. This one was hyped as an "exclusive." So it got more attention.

TMZ's story triggered a demand for a retraction from BMI.

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What's BMI upset about?

The story pinned responsibility on artists such as Bono, Lady Gaga and The Rolling Stones for "a bunch of small-town bars possibly getting forced out of business for the capital offense of playing their songs."

Every so often, a BMI lawsuit like this causes some bad press. Partly, it's because of the complexities of song rights. For all sorts of esoteric reasons including the way the music industry evolved from sheet music to piano rolls to vinyl records to radio and so forth, a piece of music embodies different rights. The composer of a song holds publishing rights. When a composition is turned into a mass-produced record, there's rights over the sound recording. And when the music is played, there's rights that govern the public performance, too. (BMI is responsible for administrating rights on the latter.)

Many people -- perhaps legitimately -- think this is all needlessly complicated, but if you're, say, the not-so-famous person who pens a Justin Bieber song, you only get paid for certain uses of your creative contribution. Or as BMI puts it to TMZ, "Not all performers are songwriters and many songwriters that BMI represents make their living from their BMI royalties."

The other big reason why lawsuits like the ones BMI just filed occasionally provoke a lot of attention is that when BMI -- or ASCAP, a competitor -- brings its litigation, it does so jointly with big-name musicians whom it represents. This often happens without the musicians knowing about it. When song performers agree to have BMI or ASCAP administer their royalties, they agree in advance that the organization can bring a lawsuit on their behalf.

This sometimes shocks the artist. For example, Bruce Springsteen was aghast three years ago to learn from the press that he was suing a local Jersey bar. He then backed out of the lawsuit. If BMI wants to preserve the public performance royalty system, it doesn't want artists like Bono, Lady Gaga or The Rolling Stones shying away from bad publicity.

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In TMZ's story, it's also reported that BMI thinks it is entitled to $150,000 for every song played. That's TMZ's way of interpreting the statutory damages for copyright infringement, which theoretically allows successful plaintiffs to collect up to $150,000 per infringement. But many of the lawsuits settle. A blanket license to have music performed usually costs a bar or restaurant a few thousand dollars. The lawsuits are meant to provide an incentive toward compliance. (This is not a defense of the system; merely an explanation of how it all works.)

Was TMZ's story inaccurate? Is BMI being too sensitive? Both questions are debatable. Most charitably, the site is guilty of overplaying a story without much nuance. BMI, meet TMZ.

Twitter: @eriqgardner