Do you play music at work? You may need two licences – or face legal action

Playing music in the workplace

Did you know that, if you play music or even listen to the radio in your workplace, you’ll almost certainly need not one, but two separate licences?

Hairdresser Neil Hull from Preston didn’t – and it landed him with a £1,569 legal bill.

Ironically, Neil thought he was in the clear when he played the radio while his customers were having a trim. He’d bought a licence from the Performing Rights Society (PRS) and thought no more of it.

The only problem was that his premises were then visited by an inspector from a different organisation, Phonographic Performance Ltd (PPL), who took Neil to court for playing tracks by the Kaiser Chiefs and Black Eyed Peas in public.

Neil is far from the only person to be caught out by this double licensing whammy. Many small businesses have been on the receiving end of action by both PPL and PRS, with some ending up in court for playing music in the presence of just a single employee.

Given the current licensing regime is so confusing, this isn’t much of a surprise. This post helps explain what PRS and PPL are, and whether you need a licence from one or both organisations.

The difference between PRS and PPL

When you play music in public, you normally need two licenses to avoid breaching two distinct types of copyright:

  • Copyright of the musical and lyrical composition
  • Copyright in the sound recording

PRS distributes the former to composers and music publishers, while PPL distributes the latter to record companies and performers.

When do I need a licence?

While there are exemptions, if you play music at work and other people than yourself listen to it, then you need both licences. It doesn’t matter whether you are playing music in the presence of a single employee in your home office, or whether you are playing it in the background of your shop – if other people are listening, you usually need to be covered.

What are the exemptions?

PRS lists a range of possible exemptions, such as using music for medical music therapy sessions, background music in hospitals and hospices, music played to test electrical equipment and music used in wedding ceremonies. If you have employees who listen to music only via personal headphones, or if you work alone, then you are also exempt. You can find a full list of exemptions here. PPL publishes rather less information about exemptions, so if you are in doubt it’s best to get in touch with them.

Can I buy a joint licence?

In some instances, yes. If you have four or fewer employees, for example, you can apply for a joint licence. In most other cases, however, you will need to apply for separate licences.

How much do licences cost?

It depends on the size of your business and the reasons why you use music. It also depends on whether you are playing music via radio, TV, online, CDs or vinyl. PRS alone has more than 40 different tariffs.

To give two examples, these are the annual costs for radio/TV in the following types of business.

  • Hair salon with fewer than 10 customer chairs. PPL licence, £142.92. PRS licence, £82.33
  • Business with four or fewer staff. PPL licence, £47. PRS licence, £47.

Both PRS and PPL have further tariff details on their websites.

Key takeaways

If you have a business and you play music, you will almost certainly need two licences. If you don’t, you run the risk of expensive legal action – both PRS and PPL encourage the public to report businesses playing music illegally.

The licensing system, though, is complex and far from user friendly. Quite why the two organisations can’t offer joint licensing to all firms is beyond us. But until that day comes, make sure you have licences from both – they’re not cheap, but they’ll make less of a dent in your accounts than a court appearance and a fine!