Calvin Theatre sued for copyright infringement

By DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

Staff Writer

Published: 08-23-2022 8:54 PM

NORTHAMPTON — An association representing songwriters, composers and music publishers says it has filed a lawsuit against the Calvin Theatre over the “unauthorized public performance of its members’ copyrighted musical works.”

In an announcement Tuesday, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers said that it is taking legal action against seven establishments across the country, including the Calvin Theatre, over their alleged refusal to purchase a license that allows venues to play unlimited amounts of ASCAP’s more than 11.5 million musical works. Under federal copyright law, businesses using copyrighted music — if a band plays a cover of another person’s song, for example — must obtain permission to do so.

The Calvin Theatre is owned by Iron Horse Ventures, which is run by local entertainment and property mogul Eric Suher. In Northampton, the group also runs the Iron Horse Music Hall, Pearl Street Nightclub and the Basement.

Efforts to reach Suher were unsuccessful on Tuesday.

In a complaint filed Monday in federal court, global music publishing titans Universal Music and Primary Wave — both members of ASCAP — alleged that the Calvin Theatre entered into a license agreement with ASCAP in 2001. This year, however, the theater failed to pay license fees despite two letters of notice, and in April had its license terminated, according to the complaint.

In court documents, the plaintiffs identify six copyrighted songs that they allege were played at the Calvin Theatre on July 15. All were written by members of the rock band Chicago. On July 15, the Chicago tribute band Leonid & Friends played at the Calvin Theatre, according to an archived version of the venue’s website. The plaintiffs are asking that the theater pay statutory damages of between $750 and $30,000 for each of the six alleged copyright infringements.

“Songwriters depend on their performance royalties to make a living from their creative work, and it is only fair that businesses who were fortunate to receive government relief during the tough times to cover their expenses, like the Calvin Theatre, pay the songwriters whose music brings such value to their establishments,” ASCAP Executive Vice President of Licensing Stephanie Ruyle said in a statement.

Iron Horse Ventures did receive a $152,829 loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program in 2020, which was subsequently forgiven.

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In its announcement of the lawsuit, ASCAP said that “nearly 90%” of its license fees go as royalties directly to the more than 875,000 songwriters, composers and music publishers who are members of the group. The group said that the average cost of a license for bars and restaurants amounts to less than $2 per day for the right to play unlimited amounts of copyrighted music.

In a statement, ASCAP president and songwriter Paul Williams said that most businesses know that an ASCAP license “allows them to offer music legally, efficiently and at a reasonable price” while also compensating music creators fairly.

“We want every business that uses music to prosper, including bars and restaurants, and are happy that they are on their way back after some very difficult years,” Williams said. “As songwriters and composers, we are also small business owners, and music is how we put food on the table and send our kids to school.”

The band Chicago is one of the best-selling musical acts of all time. The band says on its website that it has sold more than 100 million records worldwide. The Recording Industry Association of America, which tracks record sales in the United States, lists Chicago as having sold 38.5 million albums — 39th highest of all time.

In 2008, Primary Wave acquired the music publishing rights to songs that Robert Lamm and James Pankow wrote with Chicago. Universal Music owns the two Peter Cetera-penned songs in question — “If You Leave Me Now” and “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day” — according to the court documents.

Suher and the Calvin Theatre have been the subject of complaints and legal action in the past over his business practices.

Last year, the state attorney general’s office ordered Suher to pay more than $100,000 in restitution and penalties after an investigation found that he illegally underpaid employees, denied paid sick time, failed to post workplace notices and did not provide accurate or true records to the state. Suher appealed those penalties.

In June, New England Public Media, which first reported the alleged labor violations against Suher, reported that Suher and the state were nearing a settlement agreement.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.]]>