Your Questions: What Music Can I Legally DJ With?

Phil Morse | Founder & Tutor
Read time: 3 mins
Last updated 26 March, 2018

Pioneer’s new KUVO system collects data from songs being played by DJs which can be used by record labels and publishers to accurately judge how much royalties to dole out to artists. We take a look at some legal issues about playing music in this Your Questions article.

Today’s Your Questions was inspired by two discussions going on over at the Digital DJ Tips forum, one from bob3697 and one from DJ Paramor, which are just the latest two places where DJs have been asking us about licensing, legality and so on when it comes to playing digital (or any) music in public.

Firstly, any discussion about this alters depending on where you live. Some countries have ridiculously difficult regulations for noting every track a DJ plays etc, while some are far more pragmatic or simply don’t enforce their laws. Where you live matters.

However, the basic principle is that the venue needs to have the licence not the DJ. However, mobile DJs may need their own licence if not playing in places that already have one but where people are paying for admission. So that means for most DJs, most of the time, you’re probably covered by your venue or venues.

The complications are introduced by digital music. Look in the small print on your favourite digital music store and it’ll almost certainly tell you the music you pay for is for your own personal use only. Even Beatport has such a line, which is clearly ridiculous for a DJ store.

Here’s another complication: Recently software has started offering access to streaming music services (for instance, djay Pro 1.1 on Mac has this, and even now touts the fact that it works on Pioneer CDJs and XDJs, which of course are in 80% of DJ booths worldwide). Yet Spotify etc have similar clauses in their user agreements about personal use only.

So in both these cases, some lawyer somewhere could make the case that as a DJ, you’re breaking the law by playing tracks you bought from Beatport, or tracks streamed from your Spotify paid subscription. As streaming music is on the up, the latter especially is a whole new can of worms.

Here’s another bizarre one. Some countries have a licence that you supposedly need if you play something on a different format to the one you bought it on. So if you buy a CD and play a CD that’s fine, but if you decide to put that music on a USB so you don’t have to cary your CDs everywhere any more, or rip it to your computer so you can use DJ software to play from instead, you need that licence. This is Dick Turpin stuff and DJs are right to be annoyed about it (hello, ProDub licence in the UK).

What’s a DJ to do?

Technology is running faster than the law, and that means grey areas. Our rule is simple: Pay for your music, don’t steal it, and make sure the venues you play at have public performance licences. Ethically that seems to cover it; it’s no one DJ’s job to rewrite copyright law in their country as technology marches forward.

You could look at how many people have actually got into trouble by flouting some technicality or other, too; you may find something that appears by the letter of the law to be illegal has never led to any successful prosecutions. (Of course, I have to add we are not lawyers, we don’t know your country, and we don’t know how easily you sleep at night. Adjust your behaviour accordingly, etc.)

One interesting development is Pioneer’s Kuvo, a “black box” that sits in DJ booths clocking what DJs play, assuming they’re using Pioneer’s system of course. Among the features of the system is a good way of reporting this info back to the record labels etc so that the licensing cash can potentially be divided out more fairly in the future. So it’s not all doom and gloom: Some people are at least thinking of a fair way of this all working as digital becomes the norm, and as streaming rears its head too.

What are your thoughts on DJing with digital music you’re supposedly not meant to use? Where do you draw the line? Where do you see this going in the future? How is it in your country? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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