How to Obtain Live Performance Rights for Sheet Music
If you’re a musician like me, you enjoy any kind of performance opportunity. You love playing/singing in every venue from coffee shops to major concert halls. Weddings, recitals, fundraisers, you name it, you do it. You probably frequently buy sheet music to perform at these gigs. It’s common knowledge that when you buy sheet music, you can’t photocopy them and sell those copies. That’s blatantly illegal and everyone knows that. But there are a lot of other things you can’t do with sheet music you just bought. As a musician, you should be mindful of the rights you acquire when you purchase sheet music, because you might be unknowingly violating copyright law.
What does the law say?
Federal copyright law of this country says that whoever has copyright of any work (including sheet music) is the sole holder of the right to (1) make physical copies, (2) make derivative works based on the copyrighted work, (3) distribute the work, (4) perform the work in public, (5) display the work in public, and in the case of sound recordings (6) perform the work by a means of “a digital audio transmission.”  When you purchase sheet music, you most likely did not purchase any of the rights just listed.
When you buy sheet music, you don’t have rights to public performance.
I usually buy my sheet music online (because it’s fast and easy), but I definitely prefer going to a brick and mortar shop and spending hours rifling through millions of pages of sheet music. Regardless of how you buy the sheet music, you usually only purchase rights to own the piece of paper with musical notes on them. The copyright owner still keeps all the rights listed above. When you purchase a novel, you can’t make photocopies of it, so common sense dictates the same regarding sheet music. What many people don’t realize is that “[r]ental or purchase of sheet music or the purchase of a record does not authorize its public performance.” 
So what exactly qualifies as “public performance”?
According to the United States Copyright law, to “perform” means “recite, render, play, dance, or act…either directly or by means of any device or process.”  So in the case of sheet music, I am “performing” it if I take out my violin and play exactly what is on the piece of paper. This much is common sense.
It gets a little trickier when we add the word “public” to “performance.” A performance is “public” if it “occurs ‘in a place open to the public or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered.’”  It’s also worth it to keep in mind that a performance is “public” if it’s transmitted to the public by radio, TV, or the Internet.  Simply put, when you buy sheet music, all you are allowed to do is play it for yourself or a small informal gathering of family and friends in your living room.
However, “[i]f the performance is part of face to face teaching activity at a non-profit educational institution, permission is not required. Permission is required when music is used as part of training seminars, conventions, or other commercial or business presentations.”
Why do I have to pay separately for the right to publicly perform?
As pointed out at the very beginning, the right to public performance is its own separate copyright law” called “Performing Right.”  By making this separate right, the law encourages composers to create more music without the fear of people reaping benefits of performance when the composer was the one who spent hours and hours creating the masterpiece symphony.  Someone owns that figurative “property” called “right to public performance.” Just like how you would ask permission to use someone’s pen, you have to ask for permission to perform someone’s music publicly in addition to buying the paper with the musical notes on them. 
Get a performance license from ASCAP, BMI, or the distributor of the sheet music itself.
After purchasing the sheet music you want to perform in public, you can purchase performance licenses from ASCAP, BMI, or the distributor of the sheet music itself. ASCAP  and BMI  are the two main licensing companies that handle countless artists’ music performance rights. Paying this licensing fee will give you the right to publically perform any and all musical works in their repertory.  Keep in mind that if the particular piece of music you want to play is not covered by either licensing companies, you will have to go to the sheet music distributor and figure out to whom you must pay (publisher, composer, etc.) a performance license fee. Orchestras, choirs, and other ensembles that regularly meet (whether they be community or collegiate) usually pay licensing fees so that they don’t have to worry about copyright infringement during their regular concert seasons.
How much does this cost?
The license fee depends on many factors such as size of concert venue, potential audience, frequency of performances, whether or not admission will be charged, etc. There are hundreds of rate schedules available at ASCAP and BMI, so you should be able to find one that fits your needs. 
There are certain situations where the live performer might not need to pay a performance license fee.
Most concert halls, restaurants, coffee shops, and any other typical live music performance venues pay a license fee already.  This is because the venue benefits from the music performance, so it is their responsibility (in addition to that of the musician) to obtain proper licensing.  Of course don’t ever assume that a coffee shop open mic night in which you are participating has paid its proper dues. Always double check the legality of your live performance before you actually perform.
Be careful. Don’t record your performance.
Just because you got the proper license to perform the sheet music you bought in a restaurant doesn’t mean that you can video tape it. “ASCAP does not license the right to record music on a CD, tape, or as part of an audio-visual work such as a motion picture, video or TV program. Those rights, known as mechanical and synchronization (“synch”) rights, are licensed by writers or publishers.”  If you want to record yourself performing the music, you must get permission from the music publisher.  Most publishers are represented by the Harry Fox Agency and you can find out more at www.harryfox.com. 
Good luck with your performance!!
Once you have confirmed with the proper authorities that your live performance is legal, you are set to go!! Have a great performance!!
 “§ 106. Exclusive rights in copyrighted works
(1) to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords;
(2) to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work;
(3) to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;
(4) in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly;
(5) in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to display the copyrighted work publicly; and
(6) in the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.” (17 U.S.C. § 106)
 “Copyright owners enjoy a number of different rights including performance rights, print rights and recording rights. Rental or purchase of sheet music or the purchase of a record does not authorize its public performance.” (ASCAP http://www.ascap.com/licensing/licensingfaq.aspx#general)
 “To “perform” a work means to recite, render, play, dance, or act it, either directly or by means of any device or process or, in the case of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to show its images in any sequence or to make the sounds accompanying it audible.” (17 USC § 101)
 “A public performance is one that occurs “in a place open to the public or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered.” A public performance also occurs when the performance is transmitted by means of any device or process (for example, via broadcast, telephone wire, or other means) to the public. In order to perform a copyrighted work publicly, the user must obtain performance rights from the copyright owner or his representative.” (ASCAP http://www.ascap.com/licensing/termsdefined.aspx)
 “A public performance is one that occurs either in a public place where people gather (other than a small circle of a fax mily or social acquaintances). A public performance is also one that is transmitted to the public, for example, radio or TV broadcasts, and via the Internet.” (ASCAP http://www.ascap.com/licensing/licensingfaq.aspx#general)
 “If the performance is part of face to face teaching activity at a non-profit educational institution, permission is not required. Permission is required when music is used as part of training seminars, conventions, or other commercial or business presentations.” (http://www.ascap.com/licensing/licensingfaq.aspx#general)
 “What is a public performance of music and what is the “Performing Right”?
A “public performance” of music is defined in the U.S. copyright law to include any music played outside a normal circle of friends and family. Songwriters, composers, and music publishers have the exclusive right to play their music publicly and to authorize others to do so under the copyright law. This is known as the “Performing Right”. This right was designed to enable and encourage music creators to continue to create music.
When you see the words “All Rights Reserved” on a movie that you’ve rented or purchased, you know that playing that movie before a public audience is prohibited. The same restrictions apply to music that is purchased, broadcast, or live musicians that are hired to play in a public setting. Every business or organization must receive permission from the copyright owners of the music they are playing before playing it publicly.” (http://www.bmi.com/licensing#faqs) Id.
 “Why should I pay for playing music in public?
We often use the expression “they’re playing my song,” not always remembering that while we may have emotionally adopted the song, it still legally belongs to the songwriter who created it, and the music publisher who markets it. When you use other people’s property, you need to ask permission.” (ASCAP http://www.ascap.com/licensing/licensingfaq.aspx#general)
 ASCAP gives you a license to entertain your customers, guests and employees with the world’s largest musical repertory. One of the greatest advantages of the ASCAP license is that it gives you the right to perform ANY or ALL of the millions of the musical works in our repertory. Whether your music is live, broadcast, transmitted or played via CD’s or videos, your ASCAP license covers your performances. And with one license fee, ASCAP saves you the time, expense, and burden of contacting thousands of copyright owners.” (ASCAP http://www.ascap.com/licensing/licensingfaq.aspx#general)
 “How much will it cost to obtain an ASCAP license to perform music?
The annual rate depends on the type of business. Generally, rates are based on the manner in which music is performed (live, recorded or audio only or audio/visual) and the size of the establishment or potential audience for the music. For example, rates for restaurants, nightclubs, bars and similar establishments depend on whether the music is live or recorded, whether it’s audio only or audio visual, the number of nights per week music is offered, whether admission is charged and several other factors.
Concert rates are based on the ticket revenue and seating capacity of the facility. Rates for music used by corporations (“Music In Business”) are based upon the number of employees. College and university rates are based upon the number of full time students; retail store rates depend on the number of speakers and square footage. Hotel rates are based on a percentage of entertainment expenses for live music and an additional charge if recorded music is used.
Because ASCAP has over a hundred different licenses and rate schedules, one will likely fit your needs. ASCAP operates under the principle that similarly situated users should be treated similarly. This assures fairness and consistency in our licensing. For example, rates for restaurants of the same size, with the same use of music are the same regardless of whether the restaurant is in Oshkosh or New York City.” (ASCAP http://www.ascap.com/licensing/licensingfaq.aspx#general)
 “Aren’t musicians, entertainers and DJ’s responsible for obtaining permission for music they perform?
Some people mistakenly assume that musicians and entertainers must obtain licenses to perform copyrighted music or that businesses where music is performed can shift their responsibility to musicians or entertainers. The law says all who participate in, or are responsible for, performances of music are legally responsible. Since it is the business owner who obtains the ultimate benefit from the performance, it is the business owner who obtains the license. Music license fees are one of the many costs of doing business.” (ASCAP http://www.ascap.com/licensing/licensingfaq.aspx#general)
 “If musicians are playing live music, aren’t they responsible for public performance fees?
Since it’s the business or organization that’s benefiting from the performance of music, management is responsible for ensuring that the organization is properly licensed. This responsibility cannot be passed on to anyone else even if the musicians hired are independent contractors.” (http://www.bmi.com/licensing#faqs)
 “ASCAP does not license the right to record music on a CD, tape, or as part of an audio-visual work such as a motion picture, video or TV program. Those rights, known as mechanical and synchronization (“synch”) rights, are licensed by writers or publishers.” (ASCAP http://www.ascap.com/licensing/licensingfaq.aspx#general)
 “If you plan to hire your own musicians and singers and create an original recording of a copyrighted song, then you need the permission of only the music publisher.” (http://www.ascap.com/licensing/licensingfaq.aspx#general)