Oriental Dancer.net - Belly Dance Hub
About Salome | Photos & Video | Performance & Instruction | E-mail Salome

Performing Rights Laws

By Ne-Kajira Jannan

"Please note: this article provides informational guidelines only, obtained from public sources and from the performing rights organizations mentioned here. Professional legal advice should be sought whenever legal issues are a concern. Also consult your BMI, ASCAP or SESAC representative before purchasing a license.

In a world of laws, it is important even for the part-time dancer, promoter/producer or instructor to understand copyright laws. In this article, I will attempt to give a simplified overview of the licensing laws you should be aware of as a soloist, troupe performer or dance instructor, whether at classes or workshops, before your next performance. Information from this article comes from interviews with BMI, ASCAP and SESAC staff, musicians, music publishers, and performers.

First, unless a music composition is in public domain, it is considered protected by copyright. A musician/composer copyrights the score/composition he or she creates and can give permission to another person to use his or her score or lyrics for the purpose of recording a variation, a reproduced arrangement or a different arrangement of the score. This is called a Master Use License, and is usually obtained through such companies as the Harry Fox Agency. The composer/lyricist does not give permission for the performance of the score, nor can he/she give permission to dancers to perform to the score if the music is covered by one of the licensing agencies (ie BMI, ASCAP or SESAC). Artists who compose, copyright, record, and produce their own music and recordings can give this permission and usually charge a fee for the use of their music.

Performing rights are held by one of three organizations: BMI, ASCAP or SESAC. Music is further protected under the 1988 Berne Convention and by the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT), a treaty with over 100 member nations. The GATT and the Berne Convention protect copyrights internationally. BMI, ASCAP and SESAC have reciprocal agreements with multiple nations, so it should never be assumed that music from another country is "free for using".

The three performing rights organizations (PRO's) license establishments, studios, schools, universities and other businesses, including individuals. They license entities. A dance troupe that rents a hall and sells tickets for the express purpose of making a profit is an entity. A dance organization registered as a non-profit group that rents a hall and sells tickets, whether for the purposes of making a profit or no, is an entity. For the purpose of this article, we will use the word entity to represent all institutions, businesses or organizations that will employ or utilize dancers and dance instructors, including but not limited to studios, health clubs, restaurants, social/civic organizations, schools, and universities. The word entity will also apply to the group or individual who promotes events, festivals, showcases, production and shows.

In an attempt to clarify some of the issues surrounding performing rights in the simplest way, I'll use a question-answer format, giving the answers I received from PRO representatives to dancers' most frequently-asked questions.

Dancers' FAQs About Performing Rights

Who needs a performing rights license?

If an entity hires a troupe or a soloist to perform, the entity, not the performer, must have the license.

If an entity hires an instructor for classes or a workshop, the entity must have the license.

If a dance troupe rents a hall, promotes themselves, sells tickets to the production and performs, the dance troupe must have a license because they are functioning as an entity.

A dancer who is hired to perform at a restaurant does not need a performing license (though she may need a state license as a business - please check your individual state requirements). The restaurant is to assume responsibility for having a license from one or all of the performing rights organizations.

A dance instructor who is hired to teach by another organization, studio or school does not need a license (again, except maybe a business license). The organization, studio, or school needs a license.

If a dance instructor rents a hall, promotes herself and charges a fee, she is now an entity and must be licensed by the performing rights organizations.

If an individual rents a hall, brings in performers, promotes the event, sells tickets and uses recorded music, he or she needs an Promoter/Presenter license.

If a business, intending to promote themselves, obtains a hall, sells tickets and presents dancers on stage, the business is the entity.

If a dancer teaches out of her home and promotes her classes and sponsors recitals by her students, she is an entity.

I plan to use music from another country. Do I need a license?

Michelle Reynolds, Assistant Vice President, General Licensing, BMI, explained that BMI has reciprocal agreements with over forty-nine foreign music societies; they work to ensure that royalties are paid to composers. Music from foreign countries should not be assumed to be "free for the using", as both the reciprocal agreements and the Berne Convention protect performing rights royalties. All three major licensing organizations have reciprocal agreements with various foreign countries, so it is wise to assume that you will need a performing rights license from all of the PRO's in order to cover most of your music uses.

I live in a small town, and I don't make much money dancing. Do I really need to worry about licensing?

Though many dancers try to avoid performing rights licenses due to fees, the performing rights organizations have worked to ensure fees are reasonable. Recent changes in copyright law allow for two licensing possibilities from BMI: Schedule A or Schedule B. Under schedule A, if a dance group is going to do a few productions yearly, the fees may range from a minimum $150.00 a year on up. The fee is usually calculated on gross receipts of the event, seating capacity and gross ticket sales. The most recent license changes allow for a minimum payment, under schedule B, of $15.00 on up for events that are benefit concerts with no charge. Schedule B is based on the individual situation.

Licenses for teaching are separate from promoter licenses, and fees vary according to the number of students, floor space and other factors.

ASCAP offers other programs that are also easy to understand and work with. Because the fine for willful infringement can be set as high as $100,000, a dancer would be wise to contact the performing rights organizations, discuss her license needs and apply for the license.

Further, these organizations often have agents who visit various towns with the express purpose of checking licensing. Because the royalties paid go to the musicians and record producers, dancers should support these organizations. Supporting the performing rights organizations and being properly licensed ensures we have wonderful music for years to come!

Tracy Johnson, of BMI, also explained that BMI has robots that search the Internet, looking for events advertising music performance. They then check to ensure these promoted events are properly licensed.

Because music is usually protected by one of the three major performing rights organizations (BMI, ASCAP or SESAC), you will need to be licensed by each organization.

But I've talked to musicians who don't object to me using their music so long as I ask their permission. Do I still need a license?

Again, whether you personally need a license depends on where you are dancing and who is the entity. It should be noted here that many musicians do not have a personal feeling against dancers using their music in performance. Musicians recognize that if a dancer uses their music, it constitutes free advertising for their product. However- and it's a big however- it must be understood that, personal feelings aside, the musicians may not hold the performing rights to the music.

Ara Topouzian, of American Recording Productions, explained that most musical artists understand it can be time-consuming and confusing for performers to understand the complex copyright and performing rights laws. But as a musician and record producer, he explained that without these laws, too many musicians would have to discontinue making music or producing records, because there would be unauthorized use and copies of the music everywhere. "We make music and produce records because we love this art, we love the music" he said. "But it's also important to earn money from our work- this enables us to continue creating and producing the music we all love." From conversations with Mr. Topouzian, I know he speaks from a genuine concern for the continuation of the art of folkloric and bellydance music.

When a musician or composer copyrights his/her music under the umbrella of BMI, ASCAP or SESAC, they are, in essence, giving these organizations the right and authority to control public performance of the music. Simply put, the musician does not hold the right to authorize you to use the music in performance. This is why schools, public facilities, events, dance studios and other venues must obtain performing rights licensing or promoter/presenter licensing.

How does an entity get a license from one of the performing arts organizations?

Call the organizations listed below. Explain your event and they will suggest the best coverage. I found the people at BMI extremely helpful. I guarantee this will work - I tested the system myself and had another party do a second test. The PRO people were very helpful and able to answer my questions clearly. The wonderful thing is that they are current on all changes in licensing requirements, so you don't have to continually monitor changes in copyright law regarding performing rights!

(212) 586-2000
(212) 595-3050
(212) 586-3450

I plan to start doing bellydance telegrams. Do I need a performing rights license?

Yes. As the person who books the event, you should probably be licensed. I suggest you call the organizations above, explain what your business entails and see what they can do for you. It's important to remember that you are a performance business, using another artist's work to earn a profit.

I teach bellydance and folkdance classes. A lot of the music is out of print and lots of the folkdance music only comes on LP's or older 7" records.. Many of my students don't have access to record players anymore. Can I record this music on tapes the students supply so they can practice at home so long as I don't charge a fee?

As someone who teaches folkdance, I understand the problem. Most of the folk music comes on reprinted 7-inch 45's, & 33 1/3's or larger 12 inch LP's, and I constantly have students requesting cassettes and CD's, which unfortunately don't exist in many cases. It simply isn't economically viable for the music publisher.

To answer your question: if a publisher makes cassettes as well as the LP's or 45's, the publisher would expect you to tell your students about this. You might consider working a deal with the publisher in which you offer to carry his/her cassette's and CD's to sell to your students. If you don't want to do this, the Internet offers a wonderful access to music. Our site, Tribal Where?, links to a number of music distributors that sell ethnic music. We also offer addresses where you can send for folk music. John Filcich, of Festival Records, says it is always a good idea to inquire what music is available on CD's and cassettes. As one of the sources for folk music, Festival Records currently is putting a number of folk tunes on cassettes or CDs, but this will take time.

Of course, another option is to seek a mechanical use license and obtain permission from the music publisher to make student copies.

As a teacher, I get frustrated because so much good music is now out-of-print. I've made inquiries and have been told that a lot of this music will NOT be reprinted. Can I make free copies on tape for my students so they can practice at home, as long as I let them know where the music comes from?

I know how you feel. Jimmy Linardos is one of my favorite musicians, and I've been told his work is not being republished. The same is true for the works of Raja Zahr. It's one of those sad facts of life. And more unfortunately, we still cannot make prints. The fact is, somebody somewhere holds the copyright and the performing rights to the music. It's possible to track the copyright holder down and request permission to make copies, but this is fairly unlikely to be granted due to the complex nature of such agreements. Also, some copyright holders resist publishing until there seems to be a strong economic justification to re-publish. For information on master use licenses, you might try calling or e-mailing the Harry Fox Agency.

I want to use some music recorded in Lebanon in a public show at which we will charge a ticket fee. I've written to the publisher 3 times, sending international money coupons and have never received a reply. I don't know who owns the performing rights, and I know the artist is now deceased. I've been working 6 months on the choreography to this music and we definitely want to use it. So now what? Can I use the music if I have shown a good attempt to find out information about the music?

You might try contacting the PRO's and inquiring if they have a reciprocal agreement with the country from which the music originated. If necessary, get a translator to find out who the publisher/producer was, then begin tracking from there.

I have been asked to perform in a show that I know is not licensed. Is there a risk to me as the performer?

Only from the point of ethics. Remember the entity is supposed to have the license! You can only assume one of two things: either the promoter does not know she/he is supposed to be licensed or the promoter knows and is willing to risk not getting caught. Your decision has to be a personal one. If you know the situation, base your decision on the information. For example, if the promoter is unaware they should be licensed, let them know about this. Any legitimate event producer would be happy to gain some new working knowledge. If the event promoter/producer knows and chooses not to be licensed, you need to ask how you would feel if you were a composer or music publisher, and you found out people were using your music to make a profit - without sharing a portion of that profit with you. Composers and musicians have the right to expect compensation for their work and their creation, just as you receive compensation when you dance in a ticketed show. Also, if the promoter is unlicensed and the dancers know this, and the promoter knows of their awareness, consider the position the dancers are being placed in, in terms of ethics.

We are a non-profit organization. We plan to put on a show using recorded music and live music. We'll charge a ticket fee, but plan to use the money for scholarships and other public service uses. Do we need a license?

In most cases, yes. However, be aware that the performing rights organizations are very understanding of the status of most non-profit events. They will talk with you about your organization, the event, the music use and determine a fee. Usually, it's a very small fee for non-profit organizations.

My husband is a musician/composer. Can't I use his music whenever I want?

This is a tricky question. If the musician/composer has copyrighted his/her music under the umbrella of a performing rights organization, he/she does not have the right to "give away" performing rights- while the rights to the music belong to the composer, the performing rights to the music are held by the PRO. And it is likely that the publisher has some rights to the music, also. The issue is understanding the process by which music reaches the public. There are separate rights attached to the music, especially if the composer has sold the music rights to another entity or artist. That's how Michael Jackson outbid Paul McCartney for the rights to some Beatle songs! There are composer rights, performing rights, mechanical use rights, publication rights, and so on. These are usually owned separate from each other. Who owns the original musical copyright? Who owns the publication rights? Who owns the performing rights? Who owns the mechanical reproduction rights? If your husband copyrights his own music, publishes it under his own company and retains all other rights, I suspect you can use his music whenever and however you like. But before doing this, research the situation carefully.

And dancers, if you are in a situation where you can use music freely, be sure to give credit to the artists in your programs and indicate where audience members can buy the music!

Okay- I'm tired of not having my favorite music available. How can I obtain rights to re-record music and make my own cassettes?

The PRO's do not control this aspect of music. However, such agencies as the Harry Fox Agency can give you information about master use and mechanical use licensing.

I get hired to teach workshops at various dance events. I always provide the students with a list of the music I used, which includes the name of the composer, the title, the publisher and where the music can be obtained. Do I need a license?

The entity hiring you must be licensed. The musicians and music labels thank you! Musicians and music publishers understand that events like this represent free publicity for them.

I make videos of the dance events I promote and give them away to the performers. I'm licensed as a promoter, but do I need another license to do this?

Yes, since promoting events and reproducing music and choreographies is another issue altogether.

I make videos of the dance events I promote and sell them. On the video, music from various labels and musicians from other nations is present. It's impossible to track it all. I'm licensed as a promoter. Do I need another license to sell the videos?

Yes- and it doesn't matter what country the music is from. Remember the reciprocal agreements! And again, using music in a performance and reproducing that music (and those choreographies) is an entirely different thing and should be treated as such. You are not covered for selling videos just because you have a performing rights license.

I don't make enough money selling videos and putting on shows to warrant a lot of hassle. Isn't there a cut-off point of profit before I have to worry about all these licenses and copyrights? I mean, if I only make $1-2 thousand yearly from these events, do I really need to worry about any of this? Aren't the artists worried that if we performers and small-time promoters have to spend more than we earn to use the music, we'll simply stop doing events, stop dancing and then who'll buy the music?

Yes, they are. So are the PRO's. That's why the PRO's work closely with the individual licensees to ensure the fees are fair.

I am a musician and composer. I make my own tapes from original compositions, publish them myself, promote them myself. I copyright the music under my own name. I have my own record label. So, when people call to use my music, I happily give permission to use it free (as long as they aren't making videos or making thousands from it!). If a dancer calls asking to use my music to put on an event, I tell them sure - just give me credit and let people know where they can buy the tapes. Is there any problem with this?

Not from a performing rights perspective.

Okay, so supposing I compose and copyright original music under my own name, hire some other musicians, make a tape and put it out on my own label. Do I have the authority to give dancers permission to perform to this music in a public, paid setting such as a dance show?

That depends on the agreements and contracts you have signed with the other musicians.

In Conclusion

We all love the music we experience through dance. If we earn income from the music, if we use music to increase our sales, if we use music to enhance our events, it is right and just that the musicians receive a share of the profit. The interdependency between dancer and musician is not lost in this exchange; that's why so many musicians and the PRO's work closely with the performers to ensure that everyone can enjoy the use of music at a reasonable rate of exchange.

For many years, dancers were often unaware of the need for licensing. But it is my hope that, with this article, some small understanding of reciprocity is reached. Most performers and musicians are already working under the guidelines of the performing rights laws and do not find it burdensome. I hope this article is of some assistance".