It's the music cops.
The nation's two largest music licensing organizations are laying a dragnet for cheaters -- corporations, restaurants, bars, retail stores -- that play copyrighted music without paying royalties to the music's owners.
For example, did you know you might be violating the law if:
you recorded your favorite tune for background music on your company's promotional or training video;
your company's telephone system plays radio music or taped music to callers who are put on hold;
your retail store or restaurant pipes in radio music or plays canned music.
"If you have any involvement in music, you'd better look out," says Charlotte, N.C., businessman Jerry Jones. "Stop and think about it before you incorporate music in anything that you do."
Jones concedes he has a vested interest as chief operating officer of Musikos Inc., a company that produces and sells licensed music to businesses.
He says violators can avoid penalties if they stop playing copyrighted music or make arrangements to pay licensing fees.
"It's like going 100 miles per hour in a 55-mile-per-hour zone," he says. "I'm sure there're a much greater number getting away than getting caught, but do you want to be the one in 10 that does get caught?"
The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) announced earlier this year that they would apply the same standard to in-house uses of copyrighted music that they'd always applied to public broadcasts and performances.
Their reasoning, Jones says, "is that anything you do for a company is intended to increase the bottom line, so you should have to pay."
The decision is so new that BMI hasn't yet published requirements, but ASCAP is charging 4 cents for each attendee (at a company meeting where the music is played) with a minimum fee of $50 per meeting or event.
Companies generally prefer popular music -- something their audience will recognize -- and that means it's almost certainly copyrighted.
"If I write a piece of music, I own it for my lifetime plus 50 years," Jones says. "As long as I own it, you have to pay me every time you use it."
In addition to the ruling on corporations, he says, the two organizations have tightened enforcement standards on two other types of music -- radio broadcasts piped into a business and music played over the telephone.
In the past, ASCAP and BMI have said that any business entity that plays live music or rebroadcasts recorded music (even the radio) in a public place over more than two speakers should apply for licensing rights.
Now, Jones says, "a ruling came down that it is illegal to play the radio in any place of business in any respect."
Violators are notified of the U.S. copyright law. If they refuse to pay a license fee, ASCAP or BMI can seek fines of $250 to $50,000 for each song played illegally plus "reasonable" attorney's fees.
In reality, the music cops probably aren't going to spend a lot of time pursuing mom-and-pop operations, because the fees they collect won't amount to much, industry experts say.
But a big retail chain or multinational corporation is another story.
Cheap John's, a 25-store New York chain, was nailed last year after investigators determined it was playing the radio over a "commercial" speaker system because there were speakers throughout each store.
Owner Ira Rubenstein was billed $480 a year for the first store, plus $60 for each additional outlet. Rubenstein estimated he paid BMI about $2,000 and ASCAP about $3,000 in 1989.
Jones says he doesn't know where investigators are looking now. "I don't even know how they catch them," he says. "I just know that they do it."