License to play: Copyright law explained for pubs

By Greg Pitcher

- Last updated on GMT

License to play: Copyright law explained for pubs

Related tags Pubs Copyright

Copyright law is a complicated area, requiring landlords to have different licences for sport, TV programmes and films, as well as music

Turning the TV or stereo on at home is as routine as boiling the kettle. But doing it without thinking in a pub can be a dangerous game.

The Premier League this summer announced that 22 pubs had been hit with charges adding up to more than £200,000 for illegally broadcasting top-flight football matches.

A spokesman said the Premier League’s biggest ever copyright protection programme would continue through this football season “with pub investigations and legal actions”.

But it’s not just sport that can get you in trouble – a law change last summer made it much easier for television production companies to enforce their rights to royalties if you show their programmes in public.

Permission is also required for showing films in pubs, and the type of licence can vary depending on the circumstances. Music of any kind requires royalties to be paid to the artists and other parties.

The central law involved in all this is the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, which gives certain rights to the creators of literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works, as well as sound recordings, broadcasts, films and “typographical arrangement of published editions”.

Government advice says copyright law “prevents people performing, showing or playing the work in public” and gives rights holders the ability to licence out their work themselves or through an agency.

“It’s a minefield,” says Poppleston Allen partner Andy Grimsey.

“If someone does a doodle in their house, and then there’s a news broadcast outside and their drawing is seen in the background, theoretically their artistic creation has been shown.”

To extend this example, if you show EastEnders​ in your bar and Mick Carter puts Wonderwall ​on in the Queen Vic, not only does he need a music licence but technically so do you.

“Most rights holders never enforce their rights but the risk is there,” says Grimsey.

So what are the main areas of consideration for pubs, and what can they do to cover themselves?

Free-to-air television

The use of any television set in the UK requires a TV licence, and pubs need separate licences for their public and domestic areas.

Administration body TV Licensing warned earlier this year: “Pubs without a valid licence are breaking the law and publicans run the risk of a court prosecution and fine of up to £1,000 per offence plus costs.”

Last summer’s law change means ‘film’ – or any moving images broadcast – is far more likely to come under copyright law.

Guidance published last summer by the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) says “pubs showing free-to-air broadcasts may need to check with broadcasters that they are permitted to show the films contained within a broadcast, in the same way they need to ascertain whether they have permission to show or play any other underlying works”.

Indeed the Motion Picture Licensing Company (MPLC) has begun writing to pubs offering its own annual umbrella licence, which it believes covers the rights to show about two thirds of the programmes broadcast without subscription costs on a typical evening.

The MPLC covers a range of copyright holders, from film studios to TV producers, and its membership has grown from about 650 to more than 900 since last year’s law change. It believes a landlord’s chances of avoiding its members’ output while using a television would be slim.

“Such works frequently come on air, and unless there is someone actively monitoring the content that is being broadcast, they cannot be certain that unlicensed works are not being shown,” says MPLC UK managing director David Taylor. “In such cases, a pub has an obligation to get an MPLC umbrella licence.”

A pub strictly only showing content from news, sports and music channels would be exempt.

However, PRS and PPL licences (see below) are generally required to cover music broadcast through the TV, albeit the IPO guidance says “the method of licensing is ultimately a commercial decision for rights holders”.

Pay-to-view television

Showing restricted access television such as Sky Sports in a pub requires a commercial subscription as set out by the rights owner.

The IPO says: “Pubs and other commercial premises have always required a commercial subscription to show exclusive subscription broadcasts… in such cases, the commercial subscription acts as a licence.”

Grimsey explains how this works in legal terms to ensure copyright is not breached.

“If you take the Rugby World Cup, the players and teams may sell their rights to Sky, who can then sell the intellectual property around the world. You buy a subscription to watch Sky and it’s equivalent to a licence.”

George Lawson, head of commercial piracy at Sky, says pubs that are showing Sky channels without the right subscription face serious penalties.

“Showing Sky programming in licensed premises without a commercial viewing agreement is illegal and those who do so could face criminal prosecution,” he says.

“This may result in a substantial fine and costs along with a criminal record. Those involved can also expect civil action for recovery of subscription revenue and legal expenses.”

The Federation Against Copyright Theft targets pubs involved in intellectual property crime for members including Sky, Virgin Media and the MPLC.

Grimsey says a key source of information about illegal operators can often come from their competitors, with landlords who pay for licences and subscriptions keen to highlight those who don’t.

“All our advice is to comply with the law,” he adds.

Film nights

A pub can use an MPLC umbrella licence – costing £95 plus VAT per year, for premises with television viewing areas up to 500sqm – to show unlimited content from its members on a ‘background’ basis.

This covers most in-pub use but if tickets were to be sold to a screening, or a film event was to be advertised outside a pub’s premises, a different type of permission would be required.

“If you want to run a specific film event – charging people or advertising it externally – then you need a single title licence,” says Taylor. “This allows you to show a certain film on a named date. The fee is from £75 plus VAT per screening – or 35% of ticket sales, whichever is the greater.”

Film Bank Media is another company offering these services for movies.

Its single title screening licence is available from £83 plus VAT. Owned by Warner Bros Entertainment, Sony Pictures Releasing and NT Digital Partners, the firm says it represents studios and distributors in more than 100 countries.

Grimsey adds that aside from copyright law, pubs require a specific licence from their local authority to show films – other than through live TV – as part of measures to regulate age-classified content.


JD Wetherspoon may have a famous no-music policy but for many pubs, tunes are as important as taps.

Besides which, they can be very hard to keep out. Even if you don’t have a stereo, or plug a phone into a speaker, if you flick on a TV or even just host an open mic night, you are very likely to broadcast music at some stage and you will have to pay royalties to the parties that originally made it.

Two key licences have evolved to allow you to do this. PRS, the Performing Right Society, collects royalties on behalf of songwriters, composers and publishers, while PPL – Phonographic Performance Ltd – does so for performers and record companies.

“We quite often get queries from potential clients who have had visits, asking why they need these PPL or PRS licences,” says Poppleston Allen associate Sarah Taylor. “Usually they do. When you buy a CD or download music it comes inherent with a licence to enjoy it privately. But not in a non-domestic setting. Pubs would definitely need to check with PPL and PRS for any music they play.”

It’s worth remembering here that any music streaming service you use may also require some kind of commercial subscription.

With so many providers, the picture can seem quite confusing for landlords, especially those new to the trade with thousands of other things to worry about. The best advice is to check with providers, Government and trade bodies before you use a screen or speaker.

The Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers says a number of members have contacted it recently unsure what they need to pay for.

“Licensees should be aware that, if they are playing music or showing films and television programmes in their venues, the chances are they are going to need a licence of some sort,” says chief executive Kate Nicholls.

“This is one of the areas in which a trade association can be a valuable resource. The ALMR has produced a number of members’ briefs providing advice and assistance on licences, and members should get in touch if they have any questions.”

David Taylor says intellectual property rights are an important plank of the UK economy and society.

“If I had a pound for every time someone told me Walt Disney had enough money already then I’d be a rich man myself,” he says. “There are small independents at the other end of the scale who rely on protecting their property.”

Lawson reminds landlords of the value of sport in pubs.

“Research from MatchPint has revealed that the average pub showing Premier League sees a £30,000 boost in wet sales every season,” he says.

Sam Cornwall-Jones, owner of the Drawing Board in Leamington Spa, says the Film Bank licences pay for themselves if used wisely.

“We have a large screen for film and food nights,” he says. “We recently put on Goodfellas​ alongside a four-course Italian meal.

“It’s about having cool events that people are interested in and get us some good PR. It creates a certain name for the pub.” 

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