"It's probably fair that we pay something," Edwards allows. "This is how songwriters make their living, and their music enhances the experience of our customers. The shock comes to new bar owners who are unaware they have to pay the fees."

ASCAP's Vincent Candilora says his agency takes pains to contact owners by mail, phone and in person to educate them about their financial obligations. Lawsuits, Candilora emphasizes, are a last resort.

Many bar owners, however, complain that they're not sure what they get in return for their fees. One owner who was sued by SESAC a few years back says he still doesn't know what songwriters belong to that organization. "I asked them to provide me a catalog of their music so I could see if I was in violation," says the barman. "They refused. That's the way it works: You get no customer service for your payments. I'm paying them a couple hundred bucks a year for what? They could at least send a Christmas card or something."

Another owner admits he routinely throws away the handful of letters he regularly receives from BMI and ASCAP. "If I knew that the fees went to the songwriters whose music we play, I wouldn't have a problem paying," says the proprietor. "But I don't want my money going to pay Top 40 songwriters whose music we rarely — if ever — play."

BMI's Jerry Bailey says his organization divvies its payments to songwriters through an algorithm that incorporates music played on college and public radio stations in addition to mainstream outlets. The formula also accounts for songs played in the top-grossing concert tours of the year. "It's common for club owners to think that if they're not playing commercial music that the songs are not copyrighted or off our radar," says Bailey. "But that's not true. Most songwriters, if they have any dreams of ever making money, will register with a performance-rights organization."

As long as current copyright laws remain in effect, ASCAP attorney Doug Copeland concedes, there'll be a few club and restaurant owners who protest the fees. And — just as he has done for the past two decades — Copeland will, if pushed, file his lawsuits.

"We're not trying to put anyone out of business," he says. "That wouldn't be in our interest. But if the bar on one side of the street is following the law and the bar on the other side is not, we're eventually going to sue. We have to be fair."

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