Friday, December 16, 2011

Can We Report Neighbor for Blasting Copyrighted Christmas Music?

Dear Rich: Every year, my neighbor blasts Christmas music (and some non-Christmas music) with a synchronized Christmas light show. As you can imagine he goes overboard and drives most of the neighbors crazy. We've asked him to turn it down (or off), complained to the authorities, and none of it does much good. We're thinking of suing him as a nuisance. One of the neighbors wondered if we could report him for playing copyrighted music without permission. Is that possible? To whom do we report it? That's the Christmas spirit! We can totally relate. We once visited a Dear Rich Staff member in the hospital at Christmas time and somebody down the hall was blasting 'Silent Night' on a toy piano (talk about an oxymoronic choice of material). What is a 'humbug,' anyway?
Right, you had a question. The neighborhood blasting of copyrighted music would likely qualify as a public performance (sidebar on right) under U.S. copyright law. In other words, it falls into the same category as playing music at a ballgame or at a bar, and requires permission. If it is done without permission, it would be considered an unauthorized use of the music -- that is, an infringement. The gatekeepers for almost all of these public performance rights are two organizations, BMI and ASCAP. They grant permissions on behalf of thousands of songwriters. They also enforce rights and sue organizations and individuals who publicly perform music without permission. You could report your neighbor to the appropriate organization although you would need to identify the copyrighted songs from the performing rights organization's repertoire -- for example, BMI has over 7,000 registered songs with the word "Christmas" in the title. The organization could then choose to enforce rights. That's where you might run into a problem. Following the strange flap over the Girl Scouts/Macarena debacle, performing rights societies might be gun-shy about going after a homeowner playing Christmas music in his cul-de-sac. We think you and your neighbors would be better served by handling this in the traditional American way -- small claims court.

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