Lincoln bar sued for playing copyrighted songs without license

October 29, 2016 GMT

One of the country’s major music-licensing companies is starting a legal brawl over the music played at Lincoln’s 501 Bar & Grill.

In a federal lawsuit filed this week, Broadcast Music Inc. accuses the bar at Folsom and West A streets of copyright infringement for playing licensed songs without paying the annual fees to do so.

Kurt Kontor, 501′s co-owner, said Thursday his jukebox is licensed, and he doesn’t control what the bands play inside his bar each week.

“I’m not ripping them (the songwriters) off,” said Kontor, “because I’m not doing anything.”

Broadcast Music and a host of music publishers suing the bar contend he’s violating copyright protections for the songs he’s allowing to be played in his bar.

“The specific acts of copyright infringement alleged in the complaint, as well as (the) defendants’ entire course of conduct, have caused and are causing plaintiffs great and incalculable damage,” Jill Robb Ackerman, the licensing company’s Omaha lawyer, said in the lawsuit.

Ackerman didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Since September 2014, Broadcast Music officials have contacted Kontor 85 times, attempting to educate him on copyright laws and later demanding the bar cease playing the music licensed by the company, the lawsuit said.

They allege Kontor willfully violated the protections Sept. 15, the lawsuit said.

That night, Broadcast Music-licensed songs played at the bar included “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash, “The Way You Make Me Feel” by Michael Jackson, “Rehab” by Amy Winehouse and “Gun Powder and Lead” by Miranda Lambert.

The lawsuit doesn’t say whether the music was performed by a band or played on the jukebox.

Broadcast Music has asked a judge to stop 501 Bar & Grill from playing the licensed music and to order it to pay damages for willfully violating the law.

Kontor doesn’t think he should be forced to pay the licensing fee since he isn’t the one performing the songs.

Broadcast Music, a New York City-based company, sells licenses to businesses covering 12 million musical works by 750,000 artists, according to its websites.

According to the company’s online music policy form, the annual cost of a license for a 260-person capacity bar like Kontor’s would be about $2,000.

The bar’s regular crowd ranges from 20 to 200, with more people coming Friday nights for live bands, Kontor said.

Similar lawsuits across the country have resulted in thousands of dollars in penalties, according to media reports.

That’s unnerving to Kontor, who will be celebrating his third year as owner of the bar and grill on Monday, he said.

Duffy’s Tavern owner Scott Hatfield said the license disputes are becoming another expense and headache for bar owners.

At his bar near 14th and O streets, he pays for a license on his cable streaming, a license for a satellite music-streaming service and a license for his jukebox service, he said.

He no longer hosts cover bands to skirt the problem involving live music, he said.

That includes the popular Thursday night regular, Sh*thook, which celebrated 20 years of live karaoke at Duffy’s in 2014.

Only local groups playing original music take the Duffy’s stage now, Hatfield said.

“They’re horrible,” Hatfield said of the licensing companies, which tried to charge him a higher rate because the bar’s stage gets used a lot. “They’re actually destroying live original music.”

In 2011, a different, major music-licensing company sued Hatfield, alleging he hadn’t paid licensing fees for several months.

Hatfield fought the lawsuit but lost and had to pay $22,000, including the judgment and attorneys fees, he said.

His business could swallow the loss, he said, but “it definitely set me back.”

For smaller bars, the burden is heavier, he said.

If Broadcast Music can prove Kontor willfully infringed on the song’s copyrights, federal law states a judge can grant as much as $150,000 in statutory damages.

There’s a cost no matter what. If he shuts off the music, he might not make it, he said.

“It’d be dead on the weekends,” Kontor said.