Running a community radio station? Thinking of launching? Make sure that you’re covered – read our convenient guide to music licensing from the PRS and PPL.

A bit of history

By law, under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, if you play (perform) copyright music in public (i.e. outside of your home or domestic life), you must first obtain permission from the owner of the copyright in every piece of music that you intend to play. This means you would have to contact potentially thousands of music writers, composers and publishers worldwide to obtain their agreement to play their songs in your business or organisation.

To simplify matters, the Performing Right Society Ltd was established in the UK in 1914 by songwriters, composers and music publishers to manage these rights on their behalf.

PPL (originally Phonographic Performance Limited) was formed by the record companies EMI and Decca in May 1934, following a ground-breaking court case against a coffee shop in Bristol.

Using the Copyright Act of 1911 as the basis for its argument, in early 1933 EMI (then called the Gramophone Company) brought a case against Stephen Carwardine & Co, a restaurant in Bristol, which had been keeping its customers entertained by playing the 1931 recording of ‘Overture, The Black Domino’, written by the French composer Daniel Auber and played by the London Symphony Orchestra.

EMI said that playing the record in public without the permission of the copyright owners was against the law. The judge, Mr. Justice Maugham, agreed, ruling in their favour, and in turn established the principle that those involved in creating a sound recording should be paid for the broadcasting and public performance of their work.

But… how does this affect me?

In short, if you want to run a community radio station on FM or online, you’ll need at least two licences – one from PRS For Music and one from PPL. (If you want to broadcast on more than one platform, for instance, ‘simulcasting’ an FM station online, you will need another licence.)

PRS for Music license and administer the rights of songs (i.e. the music and lyrics) on behalf of music publishers and composers. If you are broadcasting a song that is in copyright, you will need a PRS licence. The monies collected are accounted back to the publishers and writers of the song. This licence is required in addition to a PPL licence.

The difference between the two licences is more clearly illustrated when the writer is a different person from the artist. For example, if you were to broadcast the Jimi Hendrix recording of the Bob Dylan song All Along the Watchtower, then the respective music licences would relate to the following rights:

  • PPL: This licence would be on behalf of the UK record company that controls the rights to the Jimi Hendrix recording of the song
  • PRS for Music: This licence would be on behalf of the UK publisher that controls the rights to the Bob Dylan song

Organisations like PRS for Music and PPL exist in almost every country in the world. The two agencies have reciprocal agreements with many of these organisations, allowing the use of their music to be licensed in the UK.

The music licences from PPL and PRS for Music permit you to play over 10 million pieces of music from the UK and around the world.

More information

The PRS for Music and PPL logos are copyright of their respective owners. Content sourced from PRS for Music, PPL and Wikipedia. 

Updated by Bill Best on 27 February 2012.