HALLOWELL — City Manager Michael Starn started getting the calls as soon as he took the job last year.

Every couple of weeks, someone from Broadcast Music Inc. called to ask that Hallowell pay a $309 licensing fee because groups sometimes perform copyrighted music on city-owned property, such as Waterfront Park or City Hall Auditorium.

Some local officials say that performing rights organizations have stepped up demands for municipalities to pay licensing fees, with the warning that failure to do so is an infringement of copyright and a violation of federal law. The licenses cover everything from bands at town festivals to on-hold music on telephone systems.

The two primary performing-rights organizations are Broadcast Music Inc., known as BMI, and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, known as ASCAP. Both are nonprofit organizations that redistribute most of the money from licensing fees as royalties for the songwriters and music publishers they represent.

City and town managers have started receiving more calls and letters from ASCAP and BMI in the past year or two, said Maine Municipal Association spokesman Eric Conrad.

“It seems that these licensing organizations are onto a new revenue stream — cities and towns — and they are going after them,” Conrad said. “We had to pay the fee here (at the Maine Municipal Association) as well. We had one event a year, our convention, and we had music once at it.”

Conrad said he told a BMI representative that the association’s fee of several hundred dollars was too high. The association has told local officials that the performing rights organizations’ demands are buttressed by federal copyright law.

After putting off the BMI representative for several months, Starn brought the issue to Hallowell City Council last week, looking for guidance.

“These guys can act like bill collectors,” Starn told councilors. “They’re persistent, they’re irritating, they’re obnoxious. I hate to pay them, but our attorney said ‘Pay them.'”

But Councilor Pete Schumacher, saying he thought that BMI was “shaking us down,” made a motion that Hallowell not pay the fee.

The motion was approved 4-3. Schumacher and councilors Lisa Harvey-McPherson, Phillip Lindley and Steve Vellani voted to approve the motion, while councilors Ed Cervone, Mark Sullivan and Mark Walker voted against it.

It’s a risky decision, Starn said.

“They may bring their lawyers and take us to court,” he said. “Or, they may decide it’s not worth it.”

‘Not worth the headache’

Most of the entities with licenses through BMI — about 650,000 — are businesses. For bars and restaurants, using music is a way to drive profits and they’re using another person’s licensed creation to do it, said BMI spokesman Ari Surdoval.

About 2,000 municipalities pay license fees to BMI, according to its records. The average blanket fee is $305 for a municipality with fewer than 50,000 residents.

ASCAP officials did not respond to requests for comment last week.

Unlike a bar or restaurant, the city of Gardiner is not making money by using music at events organized by groups such as Gardiner Main Street, said City Manager Scott Morelli.

“We don’t necessarily like it because we’re not putting on the events ourselves,” he said. “But for the $300, it’s really kind of not worth the headache.”

Morelli said Gardiner paid a fee to one of the big performance rights organizations for the first time last year, but the other recently requested payment as well.

Augusta paid $320 this year to ASCAP. City Manager William Bridgeo said he has known about municipalities paying licensing fees for several years, but other officials from other municipalities tell him that ASCAP and BMI are getting more aggressive.

“I fully understand that there’s a frustration that comes with a lot of communities, smaller communities in particular with these — that they don’t see they’re doing anything to take advantage of copyrighted music,” Bridgeo said.

He said he doesn’t take issue with Augusta paying because the city has more events and venues, such as the Augusta Civic Center, where copyrighted music is played regularly.

Municipalities that are members of the International Municipal Lawyers Association receive a 10 percent discount on licensing fees, said BMI spokesman Surdoval.

BMI and ASCAP do sometimes file lawsuits against businesses for noncompliance. In 2010, Empire Dine and Dance in Portland was one of 21 nightclubs named in a national lawsuit by ASCAP. The owner of Empire Dine and Dance said at the time that he was paying BMI and didn’t know about ASCAP until the lawsuit was filed.

Surdoval said that BMI’s approach to local governments is different.

“Because the license fees are so low, we really just want to communicate with the municipalities there,” Surdoval said. “I can’t recall there ever being a litigious situation. It’s not how we see our role with them; it’s more a matter of education.”

Surdoval said BMI wants municipal officials to understand why it’s important for songwriters to receive royalties for their music, particularly as sales decline for CDs and concert tickets.

“We only handle the public performing royalty for our members,” Surdoval said. “As those other streams of income come down for our members, that becomes even more important for them.”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645

[email protected]

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