Performing Rights Laws for Dancers

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By Ne-Kajira Jannan, courtesy of


"Please note: this article provides informational guidelines only, obtained from public sources and from the performing rights organizations mentioned here. Professional legal advice should be sought whenever legal issues are a concern. Also consult your BMI, ASCAP or SESAC representative before purchasing a license.

In a world of laws, it is important even for the part-time dancer, promoter/producer or instructor to understand copyright laws. In this article, I will attempt to give a simplified overview of the licensing laws you should be aware of as a soloist, troupe performer or dance instructor, whether at classes or workshops, before your next performance. Information from this article comes from interviews with BMI, ASCAP and SESAC staff, musicians, music publishers, and performers.

First, unless a music composition is in public domain, it is considered protected by copyright. A musician/composer copyrights the score/composition he or she creates and can give permission to another person to use his or her score or lyrics for the purpose of recording a variation, a reproduced arrangement or a different arrangement of the score. This is called a Master Use License, and is usually obtained through such companies as the Harry Fox Agency. The composer/lyricist doesnot give permission for the performance of the score, nor can he/she give permission to dancers to perform to the score if the music is covered by one of the licensing agencies (ie BMI, ASCAP or SESAC). Artists who compose, copyright, record, and produce their own music and recordings cangive this permission and usually charge a fee for the use of their music.

Performing rights are held by one of three organizations: BMI, ASCAP or SESAC. Music is further protected under the 1988 Berne Convention and by the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT), a treaty with over 100 member nations. The GATT and the Berne Convention protect copyrights internationally. BMI, ASCAP and SESAC have reciprocal agreements with multiple nations, so it should never be assumed that music from another country is "free for using".

The three performing rights organizations (PRO’s) license establishments, studios, schools, universities and other businesses, including individuals. They license entities. A dance troupe that rents a hall and sells tickets for the express purpose of making a profit is an entity. A dance organization registered as a non-profit group that rents a hall and sells tickets, whether for the purposes of making a profit or no, is an entity. For the purpose of this article, we will use the word entity to represent all institutions, businesses or organizations that will employ or utilize dancers and dance instructors, including but not limited to studios, health clubs, restaurants, social/civic organizations, schools, and universities. The word entity will also apply to the group or individual who promotes events, festivals, showcases, production and shows.

In an attempt to clarify some of the issues surrounding performing rights in the simplest way, I’ll use a question-answer format, giving the answers I received from PRO representatives to dancers' most frequently-asked questions.

Dancers' FAQs About Performing Rights

Who needs a performing rights license?

If an entity hires a troupe or a soloist to perform, the entity, not the performer, must have the license.

If an entity hires an instructor for classes or a workshop, the entity must have the license.

If a dance troupe rents a hall, promotes themselves, sells tickets to the production and performs, the dance troupe must have a license because they are functioning as an entity.

A dancer who is hired to perform at a restaurant does not need a performing license (though she may need a state license as a business - please check your individual state requirements). The restaurant is to assume responsibility for having a license from one or all of the performing rights organizations.

A dance instructor who is hired to teach by another organization, studio or school does not need a license (again, except maybe a business license). The organization, studio, or school needs a license.


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