Is your karaoke business in legal trouble before it even begins?

Business, Money

In the Metallica vs. Napster copyright infringement lawsuit of 2000, the band fought against the sharing and copying of their music without permission. While karaoke is hardly akin to peer-to-peer file sharing, singing along to recorded music with the help of a teleprompter involves the performance of artists’ copyrighted works. How often the songs are played, how they are sung, and whether the performance is recorded are all part of copyright law – and relevant to any business that uses karaoke.

How copyright law does (or doesn’t) apply to your new local karaoke bar

What’s mine is mine

Bars and restaurants often use karaoke for profit, offering it as a form of “free” entertainment. But those songs are also the livelihood of the musicians who created them. Bands and solo artists copyright music and lyrics to protect their original, creative works. Many songwriters have found great fortune and fame – and some have gone to the poorhouse – because of copyrights, or the lack thereof.

Copyright law gives the musical creator ownership over how their songs and lyrics are used – and karaoke falls under this umbrella.

Everybody must get paid

Club owners cannot simply grab a karaoke machine and set it up in their establishment for fun. Businesses that use karaoke to generate income must purchase CDGs – the licensed disc and graphics format packaging of the music and lyrics for karaoke songs – which, typically, allow the license holder to play, redistribute, and copy karaoke performances. The revenue generated by the licensing fees is distributed to the original artists.

Sing at your own risk

Even when business owners have a license for karaoke, they can be subject to infringement charges. A performance of an artist’s work that is considered offensive can lead to an infringement lawsuit. Though, of course, what people consider offensive is subjective – for some, it may be an excruciating rendition of a Madonna song – but your hole-in-the-wall bar is unlikely to face a lawsuit over a lousy performance of “Vogue.”

Karaoke is like a public version of dancing and singing in front of the mirror in the privacy of your home. What you may consider imitation, others may categorize as parody. But, per the U.S. Supreme Court, parody qualifies as fair use, which allows for the unauthorized use of copyrighted material under certain circumstances. That said, parodying more than a few lines of a song can land you in legal trouble. It’s worth noting that Weird Al Yankovic, the king of song parody, gets permission from the artists whose work he lampoons.

More troublesome is if a karaoke performance deprives the copyright holder of money. Infringement charges may not always have solid ground, but the business owner offering the karaoke, as well as the karaoke “performer,” could find themselves looking at hefty legal fees for unsanctioned karaoke.