To Kingston Municipal Administrator Paul Keating, the background music played for callers on hold at the municipal building was a courtesy that kept them entertained as they waited for service.
But officials with Broadcast Music Inc., one of the nation's largest music publishing companies, saw it as something much different: copyright infringement.
In early October, Keating said he got a message from a BMI representative, warning him the municipality was violating BMI's copyrights and could face a lawsuit if it did not obtain a license to broadcast the music.
Keating said he was stunned by the news. We have an old stereo unit in a closet. When you call, if you're on hold we play (radio station) Magic 93, said Keating. I had no idea you need a license to do that.
You do, and so does any other establishment – bar, restaurant, retail store, fitness center, government office – that broadcasts music to the public, according to BMI.
BMI, based in New York, collects and distributes royalties to artists whose music is played on radio, television and any public venue.
In recent years, BMI has become more aggressive in enforcing its copyrights in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Since 2010, it has filed 11 federal lawsuits against bars/restaurants, including establishments in Luzerne and Lackawanna counties, a review of court records shows.
Most recently, BMI filed a federal suit against Brews Brothers Inc. in Jenkins Township, alleging it violated copyright laws because it did not have a license to play music at the establishment.
The company now seems to be delving even deeper, targeting any entity that broadcasts music over any type of public forum.
Keating said he does not know how BMI got word that Kingston was playing music for on-hold callers.
And that wasn't the only violation, he learned.
BMI also advised him the municipality was in violation for allowing music to be played through a boom box during aerobics sessions at the recreation center and through the loud speaker system at the swimming pool in the summer. It was responsible for the violations, whether it directly played the music or not, he said.
The aerobics instructor, even though it's her own boom box, it's our property, he said.
Keating said he considered simply cutting off the on-hold music for callers, but he was concerned the municipality would still be in violation because of music played at the pool, aerobics classes and other events.
We rent our community room out for birthday parties, he said. If people bring their own source of music, we'd still be in violation if we didn't have a license.
Keating said the fear of a lawsuit convinced Kingston officials to acquire the required license, which costs $320 annually. The fee is based on the municipality's population, Keating said.
A spokeswoman for BMI did not return a message seeking comment Wednesday. In a prior interview, an official with BMI said the company is working to broaden awareness of copyright laws. It only files suit as a last resort.
The fees for private businesses are based on the square footage of the establishment, said attorney Joseph Saporito of Pittston, who is representing Brews Brothers in the lawsuit filed by BMI. It can range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, he said.
Saporito said the bar/restaurant was tagged after a BMI investigator visited the establishment in March and witnessed a disc jockey playing 11 songs by artists who are part of BMI's catalog.
The penalties for copyright infringement can be significant, ranging from $750 to $30,000 per song, Saporito said. He is attempting to negotiate a settlement of the suit.
Keating said he does not begrudge BMI for seeking the licensing fees because musical artists deserve to be paid for their work.
He hopes Kingston's experience will serve as an advisory to other municipalities and businesses that they need to ensure they are complying with the law.