Union City's primary live music venue is lowering the curtain on singers -- and a Fremont venue might do the same -- rather than purchase licenses to play copyrighted music in public.
Paddy Iyer, of Paddy's Coffee House in Union City, has canceled open-mic nights and isn't scheduling any more singers.
The Essanay Cafe is hoping to avoid doing the same by requiring singers to perform only original songs.
Both venues have been targeted by The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, one of two groups that collect royalties for thousands of songwriters and composers, including just about every big name in music business history.
The nonprofit group, known as ASCAP, protects its members and their more than 8.5 million songs from copyright violation. Copyright law prohibits venues, including coffee shops and restaurants, from playing copyrighted music -- even if the venue owners are spinning their own records -- without compensating the owner of the song.
"They're benefiting from the use of someone else's property," said Vincent Candilora, ASCAP's senior vice president of licensing.
"Where else do you get a deal where you don't have to pay for someone else's property? This is how songwriters make their money."
ASCAP and a similar group that represents a different set of songwriters, Broadcast Music Inc., or BMI, have been collecting licensing fees from venues for decades. But the Internet has made it easier for them to contact more establishments.
"We're getting down now to some of the smaller markets and some of the smaller establishments," Candilora said. "You follow the dollar. Now we're down to coffee shops."
Iyer already had been paying a roughly $350 annual license fee to BMI when ASCAP contacted him last October. The group calculated Iyer's annual licensing fee at $408 for the right to host copyrighted live music and recorded music. The contract offer included an attachment documenting nearly a century of legal precedents upholding the rights of copyright owners.
"They said I can't host an open mic unless I pay them," Iyer said. "To them, its peanuts, but to me, it's a big chunk."
Iyer is hardly the only coffee shop or restaurant owner pursued by the copyright groups. Gael Stewart, co-owner of Fremont's Mission Coffee Roasting Co., pays about $750 in total annually to both copyright groups after they sent representatives to the shop.
"I understand they're representing artists, but I think it's a little over the top," she said. "We've had to raise our ticket prices."
Mikey Lu, a co-owner of Dino's Restaurant in Castro Valley, which hosts a karaoke night, said he decided to pay after being threatened with a lawsuit.
The Essanay Cafe in Fremont has been fending off ASCAP for about two years, co-owner David Price said.
The cafe, which hosts live music and open-mic nights, has offered to make musicians sign agreements not to play cover songs or any copyrighted material.
"It's like they have the intellectual property rights for the English language," Price said.
A venue that doesn't play copyrighted music doesn't need to pay for the license, but Candilora said it's hard to imagine it not violating the law.
"They're never going to play a Paul McCartney song?" he said. "No one's going to sing a Christmas song?"
ASCAP, which recently reduced its license fees, distributes proceeds to songwriters based on surveys on music usage on radio stations, theme parks and other outlets, Candilora said.
Copyright violation penalties range from $500 to $30,000.
ASCAP sues about 300 venues in a given year, always "as a last resort," Candilora said.
Iyer said he'll still have spoken-word readings and other gatherings, but doesn't want to risk his open-mic nights getting him into a legal mess.
"I told them, these are teenage kids," he said.
"I can't police them for what they're singing or not singing."
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-353-7002. For more Fremont news, go to IBABuzz.com/tricitybeat.