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Last Updated: April 5, 2019
This information page can help you get started in learning about some of the laws and registration requirements that may apply to your experience involving music on Airbnb.
Please understand that this information page is general, not comprehensive, and is not legal advice. This page is intended to give you an idea of the types of rules that may apply to your experience and to help you understand some of the things to consider in relation to your experience.
As an experience host, you’re in control of the experiences you offer and it’s your responsibility to understand and follow any relevant laws and regulations. Different countries have different licensing requirements and rules. This article can serve as a starting point or place you can come back to if you have questions. But please remember that it isn’t exhaustive, it doesn’t constitute legal advice, and we can’t guarantee the reliability or accuracy of any source within it. You should check to make sure laws and procedures haven’t changed recently.
Basic principles for experiences involving music
In the United States, music is generally protected by copyright law unless it is in the public domain. When a work is copyrighted, it means that the owner of that work has certain exclusive rights to that work. If you are playing music during your experience (or transmitting an experience over the internet), you may need to obtain licenses to do so. Different factors about your experience, including location, venue, and activity type, will affect which licenses you’ll need to obtain, but in all cases, the obligation would be on either you or the venue.
Obtaining the right to perform or otherwise use music frequently requires entering into a license agreement. The applicable license agreement will typically specify, among other things, where you may play music, what music you may play, how you may (and may not) use the music, how much you have to pay for the right to use music, the term or duration of the license, and what reporting of music usage, if any, may be required. Failure to obtain the correct license could result in liability for copyright infringement, the damages for which run from $750-$30,000 USD per work infringed, and up to $150,000 USD per work infringed if the infringement is “willful.”
There are two copyrights in music: (1) the copyright in the musical work (also known as a composition), which includes a song’s musical notes and lyrics; and (2) the copyright in a specific performance, as embodied in a sound recording. A recorded song, such as a song on a CD, consists of two copyrighted works: the sound recording of the artist performing the musical work and the musical work itself.
Musical works are typically owned or controlled by music publishers, and sound recordings are typically owned or controlled by record labels. However, the right to publicly perform musical works—whether from a CD or LP or by a band performing live—is generally administered by Performing Rights Organizations (PROs), the two largest of which in the United States are ASCAP and BMI. Countries other than the United States will almost always have at least one PRO, and in some cases multiple PROs, with different PROs controlling the rights in different musical works. Musical works often have more than one copyright owner, as multiple people may write a song together, with the possibility that each co-writer may assign their rights to a different music publisher and to different PROs. You may need permission from the different representatives of these co-writers to perform a work publicly, because the PROs and most music publishers only grant licenses to the interests they own or control in a song.
Because music licensing may require the need to secure rights from multiple copyright owners, you should consider consulting with experienced legal counsel to make sure all necessary rights have been obtained. You are responsible for checking whether your use of music requires a license and for obtaining any required license.
Find out if a music license is needed for your experience
If you’re hosting an experience where an artist will be performing cover songs, then you may need to obtain only the rights to musical works. Similar rules may apply if you were to livestream the experience on the Internet, although livestreaming may implicate additional rights, depending upon how the livestream is made. Typically, an artist’s live performance would not involve a sound recording unless they were playing along to a prerecorded track. In contrast, a karaoke event likely requires obtaining rights to both musical works and the sing-along sound recordings, which may be different than the commercially released sound recording that you may have purchased on CD or from iTunes. For karaoke uses, you may also need to acquire rights to display the lyrics to the musical work. If you are performing a musical work publicly—either by playing recorded music or having an artist perform live—then you may also need to obtain a public performance license from a PRO.
An easy rule of thumb is that if you’re performing (or having performed) musical works in a place open to the public, you should obtain public performance licenses for the musical works. If you are performing sound recordings, or having them performed, then you may not need a public performance license, but you should consult with an attorney before making a final determination.
In addition, you may need to obtain licenses if you’re making copies of non-original music as part of your experience, such as copies that you make on CDs to provide to your guests, or if you record an experience and seek to make it available online after the fact, either on an on-demand basis or in a linear manner. This is because both musical work and sound recording copyright owners have exclusive rights of reproduction and distribution, and the making of copies of musical works and sound recordings or the distribution of copies thereof may require the permission of the copyright owners.
Knowing whether music is subject to copyright protection requires an analysis on a case-by-case basis. An easy rule of thumb is that if the music is current or from within the past several decades, then it is likely copyrighted. Copyright protection lasts for a very long time, so when in doubt, you may want to assume that it is protected. Cornell University’s Copyright Information Center is a useful resource to help determine whether a work is in the public domain in the United States. The duration of copyright protection for musical works and sound recordings will vary by country.
Getting a music license
To obtain a license to use music, you can contact the copyright owners of the music or their authorized representatives.
Performing Rights Organizations (PROs)
American composers, lyricists, and publishers usually join a PRO by granting the PRO the non-exclusive right to license their music and enforce their rights of public performance . In the United States, the primary PROs are the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI), SESAC, and Global Music Rights (GMR). There may also be other PROs that control the works for less popular music. PROs typically grant blanket licenses to publicly perform all of the works that they represent. Depending on what music you want to use for your experience, you may need a license from one or more PROs. The PROs will often provide a repertory look-up tool on their website. If you know what music is to be performed in advance, you may be able to identify the copyright owners or representatives of those works via one of these look-up tools.
In countries outside of the United States, songwriters will often assign their rights to a PRO so that the PRO becomes the sole entity that can authorize the public performance of a songwriter’s music. You should contact the PRO in your country to inquire about the licenses that may be needed for any experience that you host. Remember also that there may be one (or more) PROs authorized to license public performances of musical works and one (or more) PROs in a country authorized to license public performances of sound recordings.
Keep in mind that the terminology used to describe music rights may also vary by country. PROs may be referred to as Collective Management Organizations (or CMOs) or Music Licensing Companies (or MLCs). The right-to-be-paid royalties might be referred to as a “right of remuneration.” And the right to perform a sound recording might be referred to as a “neighboring right.”
Public performances of sound recordings
If you’re planning on having recorded music played at an experience in the United States, the public performance of sound recordings may not require a license, due to certain legal exemptions. Countries other than the United States typically do not have such exemptions so different rules likely apply. For information on certain uses of sound recordings in the United States, you can explore the website of SoundExchange, Inc., a nonprofit organization created to collect and distribute royalties for certain public performances and the making of copies of sound recordings.
Music labels, music publishers, and individual artists
If you want to use specific musical works or sound recordings during your experience and prefer to go directly to the copyright owners of such works, you can do so (at least in the United States). However, this is often a time-consuming process, and large corporations may not have the ability to respond to individual license requests. If you’ve hired an artist to perform at an experience and the artist has written his or her own music and is performing it live, then the artist may be able to grant you a direct license for the public performance of their music. The ability to grant a direct license will, however, depend on whether they have assigned their rights away to a third party, such as a music publisher or a CMO. If an artist has assigned their rights to a third party, then, even if they’ve written the music, they may not have the authority to grant you a direct license. In this case, you’re required to obtain a license from a PRO or CMO, depending on which country you’re in.
Other things to consider
Some jurisdictions may also have laws restricting noise or require permits for live entertainment.
It’s a good idea to check with your local zoning board or planning authority to find out whether any local rules limit the ways in which the property for your experience may be used.
If your experience will involve combining music with another activity, be sure to take a look at our other Responsible Hosting articles to start researching how different rules apply to your experience.
Dealing with music can be tricky. If you’re not sure about anything relating to your experience, we encourage you to speak to a lawyer. If you’re hosting an experience in the United States, a good resource is the U.S. Copyright Office website.
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