The British Performing Right Society (PRS) has been in the news recently thanks to its continuing struggle with Google. The PRS is also known for its forceful pursuit of performance fees from an unsuspecting public, such as suing companies whose workers listen to the radio where it can be heard by the public, or asking garage owners to tell their customers to turn off the radio as they drive in.
Now a stable owner in Wiltshire has been asked by the PRS that she must turn off her radio when employees are around, or pay a licence fee. The problem is that the purpose of the music is not for the employee’s benefit (who do not like classic music and turn it off at any opportunity), it is for the benefit of the equine guests at the Malthouse Equestrian Centre.
I know that attacking the PRS is like flogging a dead horse, they are such an easy target that I will stop hoofing a laugh and happily ride away from any further equestrian puns. However, there are some interesting questions here. Shouldn’t the law establish a minimum number of employees that would qualify a business for licence fee? If purpose and intent are of importance as to whether or not a fee should be paid, shouldn’t there be an exception for equine listeners? Similarly, I am left wondering about how exactly does the PRS calculate how to collect its royalties. For example, we have to assume that they are collecting fees for composers and publishers that they do not represent. Who gets that money? Do they pocket the difference, or give it back to the licence fee payers? Is there a change in fee for works whose composer should be assumed to be in the public domain. I know that the sound recordings in most instances will still be under copyright even if the composer is long dead, but shouldn’t there be reduced fee as the work performed only applies to publishers and not composers?
And what about the fairness of calculating exactly how much a licence should be worth? A woman who plays music to her reluctant employees and a handful of guest horses is surely not in the same category as a pub owner with hundreds of customers. The PRS makes this point in its fee guideline to customers:
“The rates in this section vary depending on the number of days in the year music is played in the workplace, canteens or staff rooms; the number of half-hour units per day music is played in the workplace, the number of employees in the workplace to whom the music is audible and the number of employees to whom the canteen/room is available.”
Fair enough, but my question is whether there is a societal interest in having a blunt collective rights management system that seems intent in squeezing the last penny from the public. This is particularly relevant when one considers that collective rights societies have already extracted money from the radio station. Is this fair?
I will leave you with this thought. In Spain the burden of proof lies with the collecting society, which has given rise to a number of cases of cafes and bars playing only Creative Commons music. Shouldn’t we have something similar in the UK? It would be interesting to have some test case in which a bar plays only CC-licensed music.