Would-be stars eagerly await their turn at the mic on karaoke night, but copyright laws could turn that fun into a feud. Copyright is the legal tool artists use to brand original work, giving the creator ownership over how it is used. Karaoke, used for entertainment and profit by bars and restaurants, allows patrons to sing along to recorded accompaniments of popular songs while the lyrics are displayed on a teleprompter. How a song is sung, how often it is played, and whether the performance is recorded are all elements of how copyright law affects karaoke.
CDGs and License Fees
When a club offers karaoke, the music and lyrics are packaged in a licensed compact disc and graphics format called a CDG. CDGs are sold to businesses that produce income through karaoke. CDG license fees vary based on use and content, but generally a license holder may play, copy and redistribute karaoke performances within the confines of the licensing agreement. The revenues generated by these license fees are ultimately distributed to the original artist through groups like the American Society of Composers and Publishers.
"Fair use" is a legal doctrine that allows the free expression of art and science without inhibition by copyright laws. A common mistake is believing no one can use protected work without the copyright owner's permission. Attorney Stephen Fishman, in his book "The Copyright Handbook," explains that people can use protected works in keeping with the fair use doctrine so long as the use does not diminish the value of the work. Karaoke falls within the scope of fair use when a license is in place.
A parody is work that imitates and exaggerates another work for comic effect. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that parody qualifies as fair use. Parodies are often dubbed “transformative" by courts, and karaoke transforms its participants into a mock version of the original artist. By law, parody performances during karaoke are not illegal, in and of themselves. However, problems can arise if a copyright owner files charges for infringement.
Infringement charges can be brought against business owners even when a lawfully purchased license is procured for karaoke. When a karaoke performance deprives the copyright owner of money, or if the use of the artist's work is deemed offensive, the copyright owner can sue for infringement. Even if the court ultimately rules against the charge of infringement, the business owner and karaoke performer could still incur thousands of dollars in legal fees as a result of the lawsuit.