James Plilar was a steelworker long enough to know he wanted less grueling work to coast into retirement. He was pushing 50 when a friend told him he had a low-cost bar to sell. Plilar and his wife, Brenda, a secretary, pounced on the opportunity to open Sassy's at 1215 Aldine Bender three years ago.
The couple thought they had jumped through all the regulatory hoops for their Joe Six-Pack watering hole. They got the place bonded and obtained a liquor license and other permits. They installed three pool tables for their beer-guzzling clientele. Everything seemed in order.
As with many favorite dives, customers gravitated to Sassy's jukebox and its varied songs. They slid their quarters into the machine to play tunes such as John Cougar Mellencamp's "Jack and Diane," "Touch Me," by the Doors, and "Chatahoochie," by Alan Jackson and Jim McBride.
And unknown to the Plilars or their patrons, that music proved to be Sassy's major undoing.
Under federal law, the creators and owners of copyrighted works have the right to collect licensing fees for the public performance of their music. Background music in stores and elevators, songs broadcast over the airwaves or played in bars and clubs -- even campfire ditties -- come with a price.
That's where performing rights groups like the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers get involved. ASCAP collects licensing fees for more than 100,000 member songwriters and music publishers.
"Anywhere the public hears music, chances are the establishment [needs] permission to give those performances," says Richard Reimer, ASCAP's vice president of legal services. "We wish everyone who performed music for the benefit of their customers or employees came to us for licenses. That's a perfect world. We don't live in a perfect world."
These days, music copyright battles -- including the one waged by several major record labels against the free music-download site Napster -- seem to play out in high-tech arenas like the Internet. Yet enforcement of copyright statutes still mostly entails the cat-and-mouse skirmishes between groups like ASCAP and brick-and-mortar establishments that play music.
When ASCAP suspects a business is avoiding licensing payments, it has investigators slip into the joint and write down the songs that get played. In the case of Sassy's, several of the tunes on the jukebox turned out to be the property of ASCAP members.
Reimer says ASCAP tried to get Sassy's to cough up for a license -- roughly $850 annually. When Plilar did not respond to letters and phone calls, the organization sent in operatives to make Plilar an offer he couldn't refuse. The bar owner doesn't recall the exact date in 1999 when a pair of ASCAP reps paid him a visit. He does remember that they were big and looked slightly thuggish despite their sporty ties.
"They just came in here and told me I'm going to have to pay them money," he recalls. "I kind of felt like the mob was coming in here for protection money or something .I knew nothing about ASCAP."
Two of Sassy's vendors were in the house at the time, and they apparently didn't like the tenor of the conversation.
"I thought those guys were going to fight before they left here," Plilar says.
Five ASCAP members sued the Plilars in January for copyright infringement. Plilar complains that no one ever told him anything about the copyright laws when he was opening his bar. He feels he has been singled out. But Sassy's is just one of many area establishments that have felt the sting of ASCAP enforcement. Club Classic at 802 Crosstimbers also was sued in January for allegedly playing copyrighted material without a license.
Reimer declines to disclose the number of lawsuits the organization has filed in Houston, citing concerns that if club owners knew the actual number they might think their odds of getting nailed were slim. He puts the figure at "dozens" of lawsuits over the past "couple of decades."
The organization seemed intent on stepping up enforcement nationally after it failed to block legislation in 1998 that exempted small restaurants, bars and retail stores from paying fees for music played from radios or televisions in those establishments.
"ASCAP is now evaluating every option to reverse the effects of this unfair music licensing legislation," reads a February 1999 report on the organization's Web site. "A critical element of our plan will be to aggressively license those eligible establishments that have withheld royalty payment ."
Reimer declines to provide figures on the number of people that ASCAP employs in the Houston area, preferring to keep the organization shrouded in an aura of Big Brother ubiquity.
"I don't think you'll find that either ASCAP or the other organizations that are involved in this kind of activity are going to explain to you right down to the last number of bodies how they conduct the enforcement activities," he says.
Most club owners find themselves eventually dealing with ASCAP and the other major performing rights group, Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI). Sara Fitzgerald has run Fitzgerald's in the Heights for nearly 24 years. She says she pays licensing fees of roughly $3,000 annually each to ASCAP and BMI, mostly to cover herself in case one of the club's live acts slips a copyrighted tune into its set. She views performing rights societies in the wary way many see the IRS: Pay them and hope they go away.
"It doesn't benefit me in any way," Fitzgerald says of having to pay the annual fees.
Like many, she wonders where the money goes.
"In my mind, it seems Frank Sinatra probably got a lot, but not a lot of other people did," she says. "In other words, if you're huge and you're already rich, you get richer. But if you're not tracking at a real high level, you don't get anything."
In 1999, the last year for which statistics were available, ASCAP took in a total of $560 million. (Reimer declines to provide Houston-area revenues.) Of that, more than 85 percent was distributed to member songwriters and publishers based on the performance of their work, Reimer says.
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ASCAP has been known to zealously pursue licensing fees. In 1996 the organization went after summer camps, including some run by the Girl Scouts, for using campfire favorites like "This Land Is Your Land." In the midst of a public relations nightmare, ASCAP returned money to the Girl Scouts.
Plilar does not expect a happy ending. ASCAP declines to discuss the litigation, but Plilar says the organization is seeking $10,500 in damages. He offered to pay more than $2,500 for the three years of annual fees he owes, but ASCAP balked. Reimer argues that ASCAP must seek damages above the fees to keep wayward club owners in line.
As the two sides try to iron out a settlement, Plilar worries that he will be forced out of business.
"If I have to pay $10,000," he rues, "I'll have to sell this bar."