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What is public performance?

For songwriters and music artists, public performance has a specific business meaning.

Amanda Colleen Williams and Taylor Lewis photo credit Pete Garfinkel

The reason we define public performance is because whenever a song is performed in a public place, an exclusive right to copy is being used.

We might not think of a public performance of a song as being a “copy,” but in terms of intellectual property, it is.

A Song is the expression of someone’s unique creativity and exists from the moment it is put into fixed form.

From then on, every which way you can think of to copy, share or make the song available to others is a form of copy.

In terms of copyright, the right to perform the song in public, either as a live performance with a singer-songwriter or full band of musicians on stage, or as a recording of the song on the radio, television or internet, is an exclusive right.

Employing these exclusive rights by licensing generates royalty money that supports songwriters and their families, as well as recording artists, record labels and all the people who work in the entertainment industry at any level.

In the music business, we define a “public performance” as anytime a business is using music to attract and entertain customers.

A simple way of thinking about it is – anytime someone is paying to be somewhere (in the form of eating, drinking, shopping, going to the doctor etc.) the exclusive right of public performance is being employed, and therefore, some of that money (royalty) goes to the songwriters, music publishers, recording artists and record companies that make that music available.

The rights to copy, or copyright bundle as we call it, is different depending on whether you wrote the song, or just record it as the artist.

If you wrote the song, that makes you a songwriter, and possibly also a music publisher. If you don’t have someone else acting as your music publisher, then that makes you a self-published songwriter also known as a music publisher.

As the songwriter / music publisher, you have the exclusive rights to copy all the songs you write.

Exclusive rights means that you and no one else has these rights unless you agree to it in writing. When you give someone permission in writing to use your right, it’s called a license.

When someone wants to perform your song in public, they are supposed to get permission in writing from you to do so, in the form of a license. They can get permission directly from you, but in practice, that’s not what usually happens.

Enter blanket licensing.

What is blanket licensing?

Blanket licensing is how most people get permission to perform songs in public.

All live music venues that are open to the public are required to maintain licenses from organizations that represent all the songwriters and music publishers affiliated with their societies.

In many countries, there is just one such organization that handles all the music licensing needs of the territory.

But in the U.S., we have many of these kinds of organizations.

The main public performance organizations in the United States are ASCAP, BMI and SESAC and another organization called GMR (Global Music Rights that handles the music of a lot of superstars).

Blanket licensing allows music venues, restaurants, clubs, funeral parlors, doctors offices, retailers and any business that wants to play live or recorded music for its patrons, to get permission by paying a licensing fee to the organization for use of the songs in their catalog.

How do you know whose music belongs to which organization?

Good question. Most people don’t know, and therefore music venues and businesses either need to secure blanket licensing from all four organizations, subscribe to an all-included type of music service provider, or limit/monitor the music played in some other way for direct payment to the rights owners.

Performance rights for recordings

If you did not write the song, but you made a recording of the song, and your recording is getting performed in public, then your exclusive right of public performance is being employed, along with the underlying composition copyright.

When you make a recording, you have to get permission in writing from the songwriter / music publisher to make and distribute a certain number of copies of the song.

This is called mechanical licensing, and is one of the other main rights to copy in the copyright bundle for songwriters and music publishers.

The copyright for your sound recording is sometimes called a phonogram or phonorecord copyright, and the symbol that marks the sound recording copyright is a “p” with a circle around it.

Assuming you got your mechanical license from the songwriter/publisher when you recorded the song, you are now entitled to earn your share of sound recording pubic performance royalty whenever the song is played on digital or satellite radio stations.

This money is called neighboring rights, and comes to you after you register your sound recordings with an organization called Sound Exchange (in the U.S. – or whatever org your country uses if you are International).

Sound Exchange is the official U.S. based organization that collects and distributes money owed to recording artists and sound recording rights owners (record labels) whenever use of their recordings is detected online.


In conclusion, a public performance happens any time music is performed in a public place.

The main organizations that handle blanket licensing for public performance of song composition copyrights in the U.S. are ASCAP, BMI, SESAC and GMR, and the official organization that handles blanket licensing for sound recording public performance online is Sound Exchange.

Whether the music is live or recorded, and what kind of business is using the music are factors used to determine if public performance royalty is being generated, and how much is payable to the songwriter, music publisher, artist or record company rights owners from each copyright source – composition or sound recording phonorecord.


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1 Comment

Apr 26, 2023

I thought public performance was a Jeffery Tubin thing. Haha

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