CHARLOTTE, NC (Joe Marusak/The Charlotte Observer) - The owner of a popular uptown Charlotte bar is being sued by major music publishers that accuse the bar of playing five hit songs without permission.
The publishers filed a copyright infringement complaint in U.S. District Court in Charlotte on Tuesday against Draught Charlotte on South Cedar Street. The lawsuit seeks up to $30,000 in damages against owners Jason Astephen and Cedar Street Investments LLC.
The publishers belong to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. Each publisher grants ASCAP a right to license the performing rights for that member's copyrighted musical compositions, according to the lawsuit.
Since January 2015, the lawsuit contends, ASCAP representatives have made more than 70 attempts to offer Astephen and Cedar Street Investments an ASCAP license for Draught, but all offers were refused. So ASCAP warned Draught not to play songs by artists represented by the publishers, according to the lawsuit.
Astephen told the Observer he hadn't seen the lawsuit.
"It's a music licensing thing," he said after the Observer read parts of the complaint to him. "It happens to a lot of venues. We're a music venue."
"It's just background music," he added, referring to the songs named in the lawsuit.
In announcing the lawsuits against Draught and 10 other establishments nationwide this week, ASCAP said in a statement that it "is standing up for songwriters whose creative work brings great value to all businesses that publicly perform their music."
"Our goal is to have businesses comply with the law so that our members can be paid for use of their work, and the establishments sued today have decided not to compensate songwriters," ASCAP's Stephanie Ruyle said.
The annual cost of an ASCAP license depends on whether the music is live or recorded, the size of the establishment, the number of nights per week music is offered, whether admission is charged and several other factors, according to www.ascap.com.
Filing the lawsuit were WB Music Corp., the music publishing arm of Warner Bros.; Heavy Melon Music, the music publisher for the rock band Blind Melon; Universal Polygram International Publishing, which represents numerous major artists, from Adele and Justin Timberlake to Elton John and Billy Joel; songwriter Dianne Warren's Real Songs; Purple Rabbit Music; and M.L.E. Music.
Last year, BMI, the nation's largest music rights organization, filed similar lawsuits against Libretto's Pizzeria in Ballantyne, Machu Picchu Peruvian Cuisine & Bar in Pineville and The Evening Muse venue in Charlotte's NoDa neighborhood.
Joe Kuhlmann, owner of The Evening Muse, said a clerical mix-up when the venue changed LLC names likely led to the non-payment claim. "It was just a clerical error," he said.
While he disputed that his venue was the one that made the error, rather than BMI, he decided to pay the $900 to avoid a lengthy court case, he said. He added that his small venue – capacity 120 – is on AutoDraft with most such business-related payments.