Roccapulco night club on Mission Street on Friday, March 1, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Mission District nightclub sued over alleged refusal to pay music licensing fee

Mission District nightclub Roccapulco was one of 13 business named in a nationwide copyright infringement lawsuit filed this week over the the use of licensed music.

The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) filed a lawsuit on Monday alleging that Roccapulco and other venues across the country violated copyright laws by allowing unauthorized public performances of their members’ copyrighted musical work.

Roccapulco is a live music venue with a dance floor that features Latin dance artists and cover bands.

ASCAP is a non-profit membership organization that represents nearly 700,000 independent songwriters, publishers and music publishers.

When a venue is identified as violating copyright laws, ASCAP reaches out to the owners to explain the copyright violations, make the case for financially supporting the original songwriter and provide an opportunity to obtain a license to play the music legally, according to Jackson Wagner, vice president of business and legal affairs for ASCAP.

“ASCAP views litigation as a last resort,” Wagner said.

The average cost for a license that grants a bar-type venue access to play ASCAP’s musical repertory of 11.5 million songs is $750 annually, or $2 a day. However, for Roccapulco, which plays live music, charges an admission fee and seats over 499, ASCAP’s sliding scale fee is closer to $4,800 annually, according to Wagner.

Roccapulco’s case is also somewhat unique in that the club was previously licensed with ASCAP and had its license terminated after a lapse in payments in 2015. ASCAP alleges the club is now knowingly refusing to pay.

“These are folks that clearly know about their obligations under the law, because they used to comply with them,” said Wagner. “We have made dozens of requests and have reached out to them and spoken with the owners of the phone, talked to people in person and they have refused all of ASCAP’s offers for a license.”

ASCAP even took the “extraordinary step” of hiring a private investigator in July to gather evidence that Roccapulco was still in fact playing licensed music without permission. When presented with the evidence, the establishment owners still allegedly refused to pay for a license.

The majority of cases, wherein a venue is sued for operating without a license, resolve themselves fairly quickly, because as Wagner puts it “this area of the law is pretty black and white.”

Roccapulco did not respond to the Examiner’s attempts to contact them for comment.

“Our goal here in filing these suits is not to put anybody out of business…,” Wagner said. “Ultimately we want bars and nightclubs to be successful, we want them to keep playing our members music, just when they do so we want our members to be properly compensated.”

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