- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 14, 2003

It’s become a familiar rite of spring and summer around the country: city residents converging on a grassy park hillside, spreading out a blanket and enjoying a free concert.

But even “free” concerts come with a price tag — and the organization charged with protecting copyrighted songs is determined to make sure that bill gets paid.

The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), which represents more than 160,000 music professionals across the country, recently cracked down on municipalities that sponsor concerts featuring copyrighted songs. It has sent warnings and bills to local governments, including the small Carroll County town of Manchester, a community of about 3,000 in Maryland.

“Our attorney received the letter and forwarded it to us,” said Kelly Baldwin, director of finance for Manchester.

“The first contact we received from them was very informal. It was just a phone call, followed by an FYI [for your information] letter and brochure,” said Michelle Ostrander, a lawyer who represents Manchester and two other small towns in Carroll County, New Windsor and Hampstead.

“We see education as an important part of our job, and the letters are to inform municipalities that the works performed on their properties are owned and should be respected with the proper royalties,” said Phil Crosland, senior vice president for ASCAP.

“This is scary stuff. Free concerts and other small-town activities are what makes America great. It wasn’t until the third letter that we received an invoice for $255,” Miss Ostrander said. The invoice did not list any specific song that was performed to be in violation of the law.

ASCAP’s action in Manchester appears to be part of trend of copyright owners cracking down on suspected offenders. The recording industry recently filed lawsuits against numerous computer users accusing them of downloading copyrighted songs from the Internet. Likewise, DJs and karaoke operators have been targeted for possible infringement if they failed to obtain licenses for public performance.

ASCAP officials agreed to waive any claims of copyright infringement for those municipalities that purchased an ASCAP license agreement before June 2003. The license agreement offered to municipalities and government entities would provide them with access to more than 8 million works.

“The good news is none of the municipalities had any listed claims prior to the June 2003 deadline, so there are no current lawsuits, and so far all the municipalities have complied with the letter,” said Laurie Hughes, ASCAP’s business affairs director.

Officials from Manchester do not understand why their small town was one of those singled out. “From what I hear, there were only 10 attendees at the last concert. On a good night, we may get a turnout of 50,” said Miss Baldwin.

ASCAP officials said there is no set process for determining which municipalities receive letters. “The letters were sent to municipalities that showed up on various mailing lists. We are not hunting people down. Letters will go out as they come up on our list,” Miss Hughes said.

“We have no ‘Big Brother’ intentions,” Mr. Crosland said. “We just want municipalities to be aware of their responsibility to obey the law.”

ASCAP’s Web site refers to the section of the law that requires permission and copyright fees be paid for a “public performance.” Under the law, “public performance” is defined as “a place open to the public or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and social acquaintances is gathered.”

Violation of the copyright law can cost violators up to $750 for each work infringed upon.

“We are not in the business of ushering people to court, but we are not afraid to do so,” said Mr. Crosland.

Manchester officials were informed that a list of copyrighted songs could be purchased along with a license. The license fee is based on the population of the municipality.

“It’s just unfair that the price depends on a population ranging from zero to 100,000. Naturally, there is a large budget difference there,” said Miss Ostrander.

However, ASCAP officials feel different about the license fee. “In the big scheme of things, an annual fee is not bad for access to over 8 million works. If $255 can throw a whole town budget, they’ve got bigger problems than music,” said Mr. Crosland.

The Manchester Town Council voted Tuesday to pay the invoice and obtain the ASCAP license agreement so they could continue the free concerts.

“In the long run, it was cheaper to pay the invoice than to pay me to fight it,” said Miss Ostrander.

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