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Two Chicago Bars Hit By Lawsuits For Playing Unlicensed Music

By Jim Bochnowski in News on May 30, 2015 7:00PM

Picture via Fatpour's Facebook Page

We probably take music at bars for granted. You head inside, you're greeted by whatever happens to be on the jukebox and you internally stew about why they don't have the kind of music you want. As two Chicago bars found out, there's a pretty good reason you can't listen to whatever you want: the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) is always listening.

ASCAP has filed lawsuits against Fatpour in Wicker Park and Kirkwood Bar in Lakeview, seeking $150,000 in damages for not purchasing a license to play songs, according to DNAInfo. According to the complaint, ASCAP repeatedly reached out to both bars in an attempt to have them submit into full compliance with the organization. A license for Fatpour would cost $2,800 a year while Kirkwood's would cost $1,100 a year.

ASCAP exists to protect its members, which includes most of the anonymous individuals who write your favorite songs. In 1917, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of songwriters in the case Herbert v. Shanley Co., a decision that has had tremendous ripple effects in the ensuing 100 years.

In short, the court ruled that songwriters deserved to be compensated when patrons at a bar or restaurant heard their song, no matter whether or not the customers paid for the performance. After all, as Chief Justice Oliver Wendell pessimistically wrote, "If music did not pay, it would be given up."

ASCAP was born shortly thereafter, and to this day charges bars and restaurants for licenses to play the music in its extensive library. As the Daily Beast points out, the National Restaurant Association encourages its members to just suck it up and pay for a license. But plenty of bars assume they can just skate by without ASCAP noticing.

In that same story, the Daily Beast notes that a bar outside Cleveland hired a classic rock cover band to play at their location. ASCAP quickly sued them for playing songs without a license. It should be noted ASCAP almost always wins, leaving small bars and restaurants with six figure settlements and attorney fees and often forcing them to close shop.

Vincent Candilora, the vice president of licensing for ASCAP, explains that this is necessary to keep members happy and, most importantly, said:

"Most of our membership are people whose names you'd never recognize. You probably don't know who Toby Gad is, yet Toby Gad wrote some of the big hits for Beyonce. When Toby's bank account goes down, he does not have the opportunity to go on tour and sell tickets and T-shirts like Beyonce can."