By Daniel Hunter

The Forum of Private Business is calling for legal reforms to reflect the dramatic change in the way music is consumed in the workplace — and to protect small firms from being stung by licence enforcement bodies.

Responding to a consultation on copyright issues from the Intellectual Property Office, the Forum is arguing that the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 should be reformed to take into account the explosion of new digital technologies and online consumption since the late 1980s.

The Forum believes that the concept of employees being considered an ‘audience’ should be reviewed — and that firms should not pay for a licence unless they are playing music to customers. At the very least, small business owners should not be forced to pay both the Performing Rights Society (PRS) and Phonographic Performance Limited (PPL) for two separate licences.

Instead, the not-for-profit employer organisation is suggesting a fairer, more co-ordinated approach with monies split between the collecting societies.

"Entrepreneurs are the UK's real innovators and it is essential that they can better protect their ideas and avoid falling foul of intellectual property and copyright laws,” said the Forum’s Senior Policy Adviser, Alex Jackman, who last year gave evidence at a Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Select Committee inquiry following the Forum’s response to the Hargreaves Review of intellectual property.

“A central issue is how workplace music licences operate and are enforced. We believe existing laws do not reflect the realities of how people — including employees — consume music today, and should be reformed to take into account the internet and the explosion of digital technologies. Ideally, a licence should only be required if customers can hear the music being played — at the very least, firms should only have to pay once, for a single licence.

“Our members continue to report that they do not understand the complex tariffs, rules and regulations, that not enough guidance is available and that, while licensing bodies are using underhand tactics to unfairly exploit this situation, there is little information about how to complain about mistreatment. This is not the direction we should be heading in to help small businesses and the economy.”

The Forum is welcoming the decision to provide protection via an ombudsman, a move originally announced in 2009, and the Government’s decision to publish minimum standards for voluntary codes of practice.

Despite indications that complaints have declined since the PRS introduced its voluntary Music Code of Conduct in 2011, there remains a high level several of complaints, with business owners expressing dismay and anger at the activities of both organisations.

Criticisms include complex, multiple price tariffs and licence requirements; a lack of information to help firms make sense of them; and even that PRS and PPL representatives appear to have an agenda to catch firms out, often posing as researchers in order to ask questions about music being played in the workplace.

Forum member Tony Wade owns the Otley-based Trade Labels Ltd, which supplies to the printing industry. After receiving a call from PRS telling him he must pay for a licence, he investigated and found he does not have to pay.

"Apparently, because only one person can hear the radio, we don't have to pay, but I can't explain why," said Mr Wade.

"The system is completely confusing. When they initially called there was the assumption that we would have to pay. I can only presume they are geared towards getting the maximum amount of money they can. I knew nothing about an ombudsman. I had never heard this was available, nor did any other business I've discussed the PRS with."

Coinciding with the new government ‘Get it Right — First Time’ initiative to help business owners protect their intellectual property, the Forum is focusing on small firms’ IP rights more broadly as part of its consultation response.

In particular, while supporting the principle of general copyright notices from the Intellectual Property Office, the Forum asserts that members need the IPO to provide better, more accessible and affordable support.

The idiosyncratic nature of the copyright problems often faced by small business owners means that general, overarching notices relating to court cases are of little value. Better help, including personal, more bespoke support where necessary, would be of more use.

Further, clearer guidelines regarding the use of ‘orphan works’, which are non-attributed works, including the impact of any future Digital Copyright Exchange (DCE) on searches, would be welcome.

As a single access point for all copyrighted materials, the DCE would have the full backing of the Forum if it allowed small businesses to access what they need more quickly and efficiently, with a clear idea of what fees are involved.

However, the Forum believes that any DCE should be free at the point of use and, ideally, be run by the Government or the IPO rather than a private sector provider.

While authorising bodies should be allowed to offer a search function, this should be not be at the expense of creating a more transparent system allowing small businesses to do it more easily, and should be embraced primarily in the interests of these firms.

Finally, the Forum also sees merit in the proposal to publish an awaiting claim list on a central public database that may remove altogether the need for a search facility. Further, an exploration of cost sharing between businesses which pay for diligent searches of orphan works and those which benefit from those searches through reduced costs for using the same works would be valuable.

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