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A group of songwriters is suing this Baltimore sports bar, saying it used music without licensing

Carlos O'Charlies has been sued by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, which says the bar does not have proper licensing for the music it plays.
Carlos O'Charlies has been sued by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, which says the bar does not have proper licensing for the music it plays. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

An association of songwriters and music publishers is suing a Baltimore sports bar and 12 other establishments across the country that the group alleges infringed on musical copyrights.

The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers filed a complaint Monday in U.S. District Court for Maryland against Highlandtown bar Carlos O’Charlies. The suit alleges the bar and restaurant on Eastern Avenue played three songs owned by members of ASCAP without proper licensing on Aug. 4 and 5, 2018.

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Under U.S. copyright laws, songwriters have the right to receive royalties for “public performances” of their songs — including recordings. Most bars and restaurants must obtain licenses to play their music.

Carlos O’Charlies, which opened in 2006, licenses music through a Pandora business account, owner Carlos Cruz said. He didn’t comment further.

But that license does not cover live music or tunes played by DJs, which the venue features Saturday nights.

ASCAP, one of the country’s two preeminent performing rights organizations, represents more than 690,000 songwriters, composers and music publishers. The group licenses establishments to play any of the 11.5 million songs in its group’s repertoire while returning royalties to the artists.

“It’s basically an easy way for establishment owners to get lots of rights in the same place, and it’s efficient for our members too,” said Jackson Wagener, vice president of business and legal affairs for ASCAP. “If you’re playing music at your establishment, you’re going to play ASCAP members’ music at some point.”

The complaint alleges ASCAP made multiple attempts to get Carlos O’Charlie’s to procure a license for playing its members’ songs. Wagener said legal action was a last resort when the bar and restaurant refused a license.

ASCAP also is suing bars and restaurants in Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco, Florida, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas.

Wagener said the organization spent two to five years reaching out to each business through letters, emails and personal visits. The vast majority of bars and restaurants are compliant, he said.

ASCAP hired an independent investigator to go to Carlos O’Charlies, take notes on the songs played and document the manner in which they were played. When the investigator visited Carlos O’Charlies, a DJ played at least three songs by ASCAP writers, Wagener said.

“We don’t sue on every work that we identify,” Wagener said. “We’re not trying to put anybody out of business. Our goal is to have some representative infringement we can point to. …

“Even after we file a lawsuit our preference is to try to reach an amicable settlement.”

ASCAP is seeking between $750 and $30,000 for each of the three songs it claims, according to the complaint.

“We want bars to be successful, we want them to play our members’ music,” Wagener said. “We just want to make sure that they’re properly paying our members when their songs are played. It’s really a win-win for everybody.”

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