Austen Thibault, The Union Democrat

Music-licensing companies that represent hundreds of big-name musicians - including Mariah Carey, Carol King and Bob Dylan - are threatening several local eateries and bars that host live music because of alleged copyright violations.

Callers from Broadcast Music Inc., or BMI, and Society of European Stage Authors and Composers, or SESAC, and The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, or ASCAP, claim the business owners allow performers at such "open mic" events to play songs owned by their clients.

They demand in letters and phone calls that the businesses pay a royalty or face legal action.

Joe Impink, owner of Sonora Joe's, got a letter June 5 from BMI and has also been called dozens of times by both companies complaining about a popular open mic event at his cafe.

BMI demands an annual license fee of $335 is paid. SESAC asked for $368.

Sonora Open Mic is held twice-monthly and has gone on for years.

The event was organized by Sean Brennan. He nearly terminated the event last week because of concerns about the demands but has since stepped down as the event's leader.

Brennan, a Sonora musician, began a legal inquiry into the controversy and believes Sonora Open Mic never breached any copyright laws. No cover charge was ever in place, the musicians are not paid and the shop has increased its overhead by staying open later.

Making money was never the event's purpose, he said.

To keep the sessions open without paying the fee, Impink considered limiting the performances to original songs and those in the public domain.

"That type of limitation does not fit with my idea of what an open mic should be, and would reduce participation to about one-third of the current level," Brennan said.

In lieu of Impink footing the bill, the event could only continue with musicians and fans contributing to a fund to pay the licensing fees - a move Brennan opposed.

Brennan declared at the Sept. 26 open mic that he would "never pay to play" and announced it would be the final session he would host at Sonora Joe's.

However, Michael Severin, another Sonora musician who regularly plays at the open mic, is taking over.

He said he would rather pay the fee than lose the venue and is organizing a fundraising effort to keep it going. He said the Oct. 10 open mic will go on as scheduled.

Severin admitted BMI and SESAC may "have the right to do it," but said "it makes me not want to buy a CD from someone they represent."

The Gypsy Shack in Jamestown recently received calls from ASCAP. Owner Tina Shackley said she has gone to lengths to avoid copyright infringements.

She said she's taken pains to follow the law and thinks her business is exempt under the Fairness in Music Licensing Act of 1998, which exempted businesses of a certain size from licensing fees.

She already pays double for commercial-grade cable for television, bought a jukebox which only plays licensed music, and made her own music playlists of original artists to play as background music in the shop, she said. Nonetheless, she said, she was told to pay $700 to continue playing live music.

Caffe Blossom in Twain Harte hosts artists who play original music. BMI, however, claims it is owed $384, said owner Jonathan Booth.

"I either pay the fee or I'm done with live music," he said, surmising other companies will follow BMI in making such demands if he pays.

That, he reckons, could amount to more than $1,200 annually.

"Maybe I can put out a jar for community members to help pay for the licensing," he said, adding "is there any way we can all pay as a county or something?"

B.Z. Smith, a volunteer coordinator of the Second Saturday Art Walk in Sonora, said these threats could muzzle live music performances throughout the county.

"A lot of people in the community are upset about it and don't understand why they are targeting our community," said Smith, adding "we have a lot of musicians who wouldn't play a cover song for $500 and they are being squished by this."

BMI spokeswoman Marlene Meraz defended BMI's tactics.

"Music plays a pivotal role in driving traffic and increasing profits in your restaurant or bar," she said. "The copyright protection enables songwriters to earn a living from their music so that they can continue to create new music."

Russell Moreton, a former co-host of the Sonora Open Mic who actually has music protected by BMI, was leery of what the company has wrought.

He said he chose to get licensed "in case" his music got popular, but thinks this policy of cracking down on live music in small businesses will leave no venue for new, part-time and semi-retired players.

"The letter of the law is on, but the spirit of the law is off," he said.

He said the copyright laws being enforced by BMI are intended for cases like putting songs in movies or big stars doing cover songs.

"Bob Dylan isn't losing any money from Sonora Joe's," he said.