Do you play background music at work ?

If your company, charity or school plays background music for employees, customers or pupils you may require two separate licences.

Copyright law requires the permission of the copyright owner before any ‘public performance’ of pre-recorded music.  The term ‘public performance’ is not clearly defined, but generally taken to mean non-domestic use.  The fact that an event is free to attend does not grant exemption.  A ‘performance’ might be via cd, cassette, vinyl, radio, tv, mobile phone, video or telephone “hold” music.

Copyright owners include composers, performers and music companies.  Obtaining prior consent obviously poses significant logistical problems, hence the existence of two intermediaries to simplify this process – the PPL and the PRS.  The PPL represents record companies/performers and the PRS represents composers/publishers.

These bodies effectively grant qualified permission in return for an annual licence fee, apportioning revenues amongst the copyright owners.  Workplaces or public places where pre-recorded music is audible are likely to require both licences.  Employees who use personal, portable music devices to listen via headphones do not require a licence provided the output is not shared.  In addition, licences are usually not required for hospitals, health centres, chapels of rest, wedding ceremonies, churches and curriculum-related use in educational establishments.  Non-curriculum use in schools and universities (such as fetes and end-of-term parties) might require a licence1.  Non-music copyright issues within schools can also be unexpectedly complex – using an overhead projector to display hymns or copying hymn lyrics to a computer might require a separate licence if the composer is still alive (or deceased less than 70 years).  So too might the recording of tv or radio programmes.  General guidance concerning copyright issues in schools can be found here.

Performing Rights Society (PRS)

Background music in the workplace is chargeable for multiples of 25 employees -canteens and recreational areas attract a higher rate.  Licences should be obtained prior to the provision of music – retrospective licences are subject to a 50% surcharge.

Telephone hold music using copyrighted output also requires a licence, charged against the number of incoming lines.  Again, retrospective licences are surcharged.

Bespoke tariffs are available for every business type from bingo halls to cruise liners.

Phonographic Performance Ltd (PPL)

Annual licenses vary in cost depending on premises size and occupation.  Cases where the music is not merely for background listening but central to the event (discos, nightclubs etc) are defined as ‘Specially Featured Entertainment’ (SFE) events and subject to a substantially higher tariff.

 VPL, a sister company, licence the public performance of music videos.  Rates vary according to the size and number of screens.

Royalty-free music is available, where either the copyright holders are not registered with the PRS and/or PPL, or where permission for repeat usage is included at the time of purchase.  This is often used for generic telephone ‘hold’ music.


If an employer provides equipment for staff to watch or record live tv, the work premises must possess a tv licence.  If an employee brings a device into the workplace to watch or record live tv this activity will be covered by the employee’s home tv licence – provided the device is not plugged into the workplace mains supply.  If it is, the employer might become liable.

For schools, one tv licence will usually suffice irrespective of multiple buildings provided that the school premises are located within the same town.  Student and staff accommodation will require separate individual licences.

Watching “catch-up” services such as BBC iPlayer does not require a tv licence, however any publicly-viewable tv would likely require PRS and PPL licences in addition to a tv licence.

 1 PRS fees for the educational sector are administered by CFEM.

Do you play background music at work ?