Grand Rights and Belly Dance

Copyright all rights reserved
Copyright: all rights reserved

I’m in the middle of writing a “Grand Rights” primer for dancers which will likely be a separate web page rather than simply a blog post.  Copyright issues and copyright law are incredibly sticky issues and as I’ve been increasingly dealing with contractual work that deals with licensing my music (or the music of the ensembles I work with) I’ve had more than ample opportunities learn just what my rights are as a composer and maker of music.

Much of this is also the result of following local (and national) issues regarding the usage of pre-recorded music for theatrical or dramatic productions.  In particular, the recent Priscilla Queen of the Desert Broadway production, which is slowly floundering due to the bad word-of-mouth as the result of the producers to use canned music– a first to actually happen in the Broadway world (though not the first attempt).

Since I’ve been involved relatively heavily in the belly dance community for close to a decade now (among other smaller dance communities/industries) it has always been a bit of an uphill battle to convince dancers to use live music whenever they can.  At the very least to get them support the musicians whose music they are dancing to which most are more than happy to do.

The big issue here–or rather, it isn’t yet a big issue but it’s only a matter of time before it does become one–is that, by all rights and measures, dancers should be obtaining the Grand Rights for a dance performance to either live or canned music.

Grand Rights (sometimes called “Grand Performing Rights” or “Dramatic Performing Rights”) differ from Small Rights, which are the rights administered by Performing Rights Organizations (PROs).  While Small Rights apply only to the performance of a musical work (a radio broadcast or playing a CD are considered “performances” for the purposes of licensing), Grand Rights apply to what is considered a ‘dramatico-musical performance’ of a piece of music.  Traditionally, dramatico-musical performances were assumed to happen far less frequently (often due to nature of the cost inherent in productions) than non-dramatic performances of music.  Operas, Musicals, Plays with incidental music, Ballets, and Oratorios were the prototypical examples.

Since the advent of music videos, newer media, and the phenomenon of Tribute Bands, the definition of what constitutes a dramtico-musical performance has greatly expanded.  The ease which which music can now be used as a pre-recorded backdrop for an actual live movement or dramatic reading type of performance has been greatly affected by new technologies.  This includes live dance performances.

The three PROs in the US are ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.), and  SESAC (Society of European Stage Authors & Composers).  SESAC, the smallest of the three PROs in the US, does seem to administer some Grand Rights though I’ve not explored their model yet.

As there has been several online discussions regarding copyright issues as well as how often ASCAP and BMI have been ‘approaching’ belly dance studios recently, those studios which have obtained a license seemed to have sidestepped the issue of the issue of using music for studio classes or individual lessons.  For those purposes, the Small Rights licenses are perfectly acceptable even setting aside the issue that more than likely the individual artists won’t see a penny from the payment for the license (this is an issue for a different blog post).

The problem is, once a piece of music is used for a performance, this would require a Grand Rights license.  Most smaller classical or modern dance studios understand this and have very useful online guides for their dancers for the purposes of obtaining permission to dance to music.  Belly Dancers don’t, as a general rule, seem to understand this.  The same can be said for the growing number of studios focusing on, say, Flamenco, Bollywood and other types of ethnic dances, as well as more theatrically themed performances that are becoming more popular again such as Burlesque and Vaudeville.  Alternatively, many belly dancers seem to think that having the ASCAP or BMI license is sufficient to cover what would constitute a dramatico-musical performance of the music in their studios.  It doesn’t.

This is also an issue that can extend to musicians as well as venues.  While all three parties can be held liable for copyright infringement, traditionally it has fallen to the venue to obtain the [Small Rights] license.  Whether or not this will be the case once a lawsuit over Grand Rights are concerned in the case of belly dance performances is yet to be seen.  Many musical performing groups and Tribute Bands have been successfully sued, and some rights holders have it as a matter of policy to pursue such musical acts (e.g. The Zappa Family Trust).

It must also be remembered that the fist successful lawsuit by ASCAP involved a restaurant (the Shanley Restaurant) that was sued by Victor Herbert in 1917.  Restaurants, as most of us know in the belly dance community/industry, are one of the most frequent venues that belly dancers (and in some cases, belly dance musicians) perform.  By performing copyrighted music in an unlicensed venue, such as a restaurant, or without having Grand Rights permission for a dramatico-musical performance, musicians and dancers threaten the venue.  And even in a licensed venue, a dramatico-musical performance could lead to litigation.

We all understand how easy it is to obtain music in this day and age of digital downloading, we all just have to understand that even if the music is paid for, what was paid for was the right to private listening, not public profit.  Those rights lie with the author of the music alone and any right to use the music for profit or personal gain or in a non-private setting may be given by the artist alone.

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