May 28, 2015 asksam

Ask Sam – Music Licensing

Dear Sam, We all hear of and talk about the perils of not properly licensing music and photos for use within the corporate environment as well as the implications of allowing users to download and/or store their own music and photos on corporate devices. There is the possibility that the corporate could be liable for the fees associated with the use of the IPR from the music and/or photos. But what is that possible liability? We have been trying to answer the question internally in the last week and all we can identify is confusing information and contradictory stances. We all understand the implications that are associated with the additional storage consumption in the corporate environment – but are they really an issue when the cost of storage is nowadays so small? What we cannot clarify is if one person were to store their personal music and/or photos on a corporate device would that corporate be subject to a single fee for the potential use of the music and/or photos or would the corporate be subject to a fee for each member of the organisation that could potentially access the music and/or photos? Comments/views appreciated but please try and clarify rather than add to the confusion!


Confused Individual

Ask Sam Dear Confused Individual,

The Bite-Sized Details

An organization could be liable as a result of an employee using music or photos (and, of course, software) on the job though, like any legal liability issue, it comes down to the facts.

How can an organization be liable? If the organization is complicit, and allows, for example, its systems to be used to store, share (e.g. on a company owned server) or play music that provides a benefit to the organization, that organization could be held liable as it is providing a benefit to the company. For example, playing music in the reception area, on an elevator, on “hold” or as part of a PowerPoint or at an event are all examples where a company would need a license to use the music and failure to obtain a license could result in the company being liable.

If music is being used by the employee for mere personal use (e.g. the music is not benefiting the company in any way), even if played locally from a corporate laptop, the organization would likely not be liable.

I will summarize below and also include links for additional information.

Now, a Bit of Background to This Answer

First, copyright law covers different types of works of authorship, such as music, photos, books, documents, and software. The copyright holder can take legal action against an infringer to prevent the infringer from continuing the infringement and to collect monetary damages caused by the infringement.

The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, is the current UK copyright law. An overview of the law, copyright myths, and common questions is available here. In respect to music, types of licenses that are necessary to play legally music in public venues are available here. Doing a bit of digging around, I also found a link that describes how music can (or cannot) be legally played in the workplace.

However, if I am playing music for others (there are exceptions to this in the UK – see the links above), you would need a license to publicly play that music (e.g. playing music in reception, on the elevator etc.).

In the US, the law is similar. Known as the Copyright Law of the United States, the law spells out rights and limitations to the playing of music. In the US, like the UK, if the music is played for an employee’s personal enjoyment (e.g., I am playing music that resides on my computer, and only I can hear it), the organization would not be liable.

In short, if the music played is for the employees’ personal benefit and not the company’s benefit, even if that music is played from a corporate laptop, the organization would probably not be liable. If the music is being played for others, or shared, you should secure the proper license from the copyright holder or its licensing agent. In the UK, most music can be licensed by PRS for Music and in the US, that agent is known as ASCAP.

Lastly, and not to be a sourpuss, as the majority of music is now streamed, what is the policy for your organization on streaming music and other forms of entertainment?

Compliantly Yours,


P.S. A special thanks nonetheless goes out to a colleague (friend and attorney) for helping with this response. Further, any exceptions above do not apply if the music is illegal (e.g. copied from another person or service).

P.P.S. And, if you’re wondering why I said, “the organization would probably not be liable”, we’ll cover that in a future response.

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