As with all music that’s performed in public, the bar owners are required to pay the royalties, even if there are just handful of listeners present.
Royalty collection agencies take this obligation very seriously and drive around the country visiting local bars and pubs to check whether they obey the law. Those who don’t usually get a bill in the mailbox, and if they refuse to pay up it gets worse.
Every year hundreds of small establishments are sued by copyright holders, often with help from performing rights organizations ASCAP and BMI. This week, Giacomo Jacks, a restaurant/bar from Amityville, New York, became a target.
The bar is being sued by Warner Bros. and Pure Songs for playing two songs without permission back in February. As they failed to secure the rights, Giacomo Jacks now faces a maximum of $60,000 in damages.
While these lawsuits are fairly common, the song over which Warner Bros is suing stands out immediately, as it’s more than 80 years old.
The song in question is the classic love song “I Only Have Eyes for You,” written by Harry Warren and lyricist Al Dubin and used in Warner Bros’ 1934 movie Dames. Since then it has been covered dozens of times, including the well-known Flamingos version.
In the lawsuit Warner Bros. claims to have been severely harmed by the public performance in the Amityville bar, for which it demands proper compensation. Since the actual damage can’t be calculated they ask for up to $30,000 per infringement.
“The said wrongful acts of the Defendants have caused and are causing great injury to the Plaintiffs, which damage cannot be accurately computed, and unless this Court restrains the Defendants from the further commission of said acts, said Plaintiffs will suffer irreparable injury,” the complaint (pdf) reads.
While Warner Bros. appear to be on sound legal ground (the song’s copyright only expires after 95 years) suing a small local business over a 80-year old song is not the best PR. That said, considering previous cases that dealt with the same issue, Giacomo Jacks will most likely lose the case or end up paying a hefty settlement fee.
Meanwhile, various unauthorized copies of the track are played hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube and elsewhere.