Madison County

B-b-bad to the bone? Small Kentucky bar faces potentially steep fine for music

Blue Moon in Richmond is targeted in a federal lawsuit filed Monday by Broadcast Music Inc. and several music publishing companies
Blue Moon in Richmond is targeted in a federal lawsuit filed Monday by Broadcast Music Inc. and several music publishing companies

That old time rock and roll “just soothes the soul,” Bob Seger sang, but playing that song and others without permission might cost a Richmond bar thousands of dollars.

A copyright infringement suit filed Monday in federal court says Blue Moon bar didn’t have a publishing license to play songs by Seger, Johnny Cash, George Thorogood and others.

Mary Katherine Lockhart, who operates Blue Moon, is named as a defendant in the suit filed Monday by Broadcast Music Inc. and several music publishing companies. She could not be reached for comment, but her son, Prentice Richardson, said he doesn’t understand why the action is being taken.

“Why are they singling us out?” Richardson said. “There are other bars that make a lot more money. …I just don’t understand it myself.”

Bars and restaurants must pay music licensing fees for the privilege to play music in their establishments. A BMI music license offers copyright clearance to publicly play more than 13 million musical works by more than 800,000 songwriters, composers and publishers in the company’s repertoire.

“Any time music is performed in a public setting, regardless of whether it is a live band, recorded, DJ, karaoke or a jukebox, permission from the copyright owner must be given,” wrote Jodie Thomas, executive director of communications for BMI in an email.

“At the end of the day, it is BMI’s job to protect its songwriters and make sure they are fully compensated if their music is performed in a public setting,” Thomas wrote in the email.

Lockhart had a licensed account with BMI that expired at the end of 2005. But since September 2014, the suit says, BMI has reached out to Lockhart more than 90 times, by phone and mail, in an effort to educate her with respect “to the necessity of purchasing a licensing fee for the public performance of musical compositions” in the BMI repertoire.

Among the songs played at the bar in which there was an alleged “willful copyright infringement” were “Bad to the Bone” by George Thorogood, “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash, “Susie Q,” a 1968 hit for Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Old Time Rock & Roll,” a 1979 hit for Bob Seger, and “Keep Your Hands to Yourself,” a 1986 hit for the Georgia Satellites.

Michael Coblenz, a Lexington lawyer who has handled copyright and trademark cases, said BMI and other companies “have investigators that go around to bars and sit there and record stuff, and they can check their records to see whether the bar has taken out a license.”

Not every business is required to buy a license. There are exceptions based on the size of the business and the type of service, Coblenz said.

But “if you have a boom box with your own CD in it, that is a public performance, particularly at a bar because music is part of the ambience of a bar or restaurant,” Coblenz said.

A music license can cost as little as $370 per year or as much as thousands, depending on the size of the establishment, the type of music played and how often that music is performed.

BMI has filed 10 similar suits in the federal court district for Eastern Kentucky since 2002, and seven of those have been filed since 2014. Many copyright cases are settled out of court, but sometimes owners have to pony up thousands of dollars.

In 2015, the company that operated Godfather’s Pizza in Lancaster was ordered by U.S. District Judge Karen Caldwell to pay a $20,000 judgment. “Old Time Rock and Roll,” “Susie Q” and several Merle Haggard songs were among the compositions cited in that action.

The Blue Moon suit also doesn’t say how much money is sought, but the complaint seeks statutory damages, costs and attorney’s fees.