Earlier this week I was going through my pile of “clips.” No, not from anything I’ve had published – never happened. It’s that pile of magazine articles “to be filed” that I consistently tear out because there is some useful information I may need some day. The nice thing about going through the pile is that I usually find a lot of pages that make me think, “What did I want that for?” and throw them out, leading to a sense of accomplishment in having attacked the paper monster. I ran across one that made me pause; it had to do with my ability (or inability) to play music in my store. It was actually a letter to the editor of The New York Times Magazine commenting on an article about music rights and pointing out exemptions to licensing requirements.
Several years ago, I received a letter from BMI informing me that I was playing music illegally in my store and demanding a yearly licensing fee for the privilege. It was nasty, and my response was not very nice either. I honestly had not realized that playing the new Bose radio my husband had given me was a violation. I thought that soft music in the background would create a relaxed atmosphere and encourage shoppers to browse. Licensing and royalties never crossed my mind. Now it seemed I was, from the tone of the letter, involved in a criminal enterprise worthy of investigation by stealth “secret shoppers” looking not for bad customer service but thieving booksellers. My logic was that the radio station had already paid royalties. And they wanted more? More than that, I was outraged that these fees were apparently going to pay someone to enter small businesses incognito and find violators to whom nasty demands for payment could be sent. My response included these comments, and that I felt this was another burden on small businesses; my choice was to refrain from playing music rather than pay them even a penny. I fully support the rights of creative people to be compensated for the use of their works. However, the approach of BMI made me so resentful that I just stopped playing music. I don’t know if anyone else came back masquerading as a customer to check on me. I don’t violate the law, even if I think it is stupid.
What I learned following up on the magazine clipping is that the law is not as stupid as BMI indicated. A business the size of mine (less than 2,000 square feet) which is not charging for listening to music and has four or fewer speakers is exempt from licensing fees for playing a radio from a non-commercial receiver. This exemption was clarified in amendments to the copyright law in 1999, years before BMI decided I was in violation. Of course, their letter mentioned no such exemption. Just “pay us.” I found it interesting, also, as I meandered through the Internet on this topic, that the ASCAP website spells out clearly in a logical place that this exemption exists; it took multiple passes at BMI’s website to ferret it out in the “FAQ” section. I don’t think I would have found it if I had not known already that such an exemption exists.
So let the music begin! I can even put in the speakers I was planning when I “went silent.”
The idea that investigators would be sent out to check on small businesses may seem paranoid, but this week’s revival of the music issue brought to mind another incident from a few years ago. One day as I worked at my counter, I noticed a middle-aged man in a trench coat peering in the window. When he saw me looking at him, he moved away. That in itself is no big deal. But he periodically walked by, glancing in at me and continuing on his way. After the fourth or fifth time, I started to plan my escape route if he was up to no good, and kept the phone with me at all times as I worked around the shelves. He looked harmless enough – but the trench coat! And the peering in! He finally entered the store, came up to the counter and produced identification; he was from the New Jersey Division of Taxation. He said, “I need to see your Certificate of Authority (to collect sales tax) which is required to be displayed in a prominent place.” He sounded as if he were reading from a script. The required document is framed and hung on the wall behind the counter, so no problem. He left. Later, talking to other merchants on the street, I found that everyone had been observing his strange behavior, walking up and down and staring into windows, and wondered what he was up to, as I had. We guessed that he was watching us ring up sales, to be sure no cash transactions went unrecorded for tax purposes. I have to wonder that there is money in the state treasury (and BMI’s coffers) to send people to a small town full of small independent businesses to be sure that all of us criminal shopkeepers toe the line.
Of course, my business is open to the public, and anyone can come in or look through the windows. I run my business honestly, and I resent the implication of dishonesty that this stealth observation creates. But let them watch; I’m not hiding anything. Maybe they’ll spot an interesting book at the same time.