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A Toronto-based organization collects licensing fees for recorded music played in retail stores and cafés. ((Erin Collins/CBC))

Some Calgary coffee shops and restaurants have been getting unexpected bills in the mail — for royalties on the music they play in their establishments.

The invoices are being sent by Re:Sound, a Toronto-based, not-for-profit licensing company that claims its mandate is to help musicians get paid when their music recordings are played in public settings.

The group claims that under Canadian copyright law, retail outlets that play recorded music are required to pay licensing fees.

Re:Sound — formerly known as the Neighbouring Rights Collective of Canada — is one of several organizations authorized by the Copyright Board of Canada to collect these fees on behalf of member artists and record companies. 

"You need express written permission to play movies in public; it's the exact same thing with music," said Re:Sound's Martin Gangnier. "Just for some reason through the years, it's never really come through like that, and that's what we are trying to get across now."

The cost of a licence to use music in a business varies depending on the establishment's square footage, seating capacity and the number of days it's open, but it rarely exceeds $100 a year, Gangnier said.

'Music adds value to businesses.'— Martin Gangnier, Re:Sound

When Michael Landry got a letter from Re:Sound saying he owed retroactive fees for the years that he's been playing recorded music in his café, he threw it aside.

"It sounded like a bit of a joke to me," said Landry, who owns Ground Effect Café in south Calgary.

At his seven-seat coffee shop, where he plays Icelandic folk music out of a portable stereo the size of a shoebox, the customers don't come for the music, he said.

"In fact, most of the time what we are playing here is a detriment to our business. Like, people come in, and they're like, 'Oh my Lord'," Landry said with a chuckle.

But Canadian copyright law is clear, according to Gangnier: cafés, restaurants and stores are obliged to pay for music they play for customers.

"Music adds value; music adds value to businesses," he said.

In the end, Landry was told he was off the hook, since he plays the music in the kitchen, not in the seating area.

In 2006, the Copyright Board of Canada gave Re:Sound the authority to collect what is known as the Background Music Tariff, or Tariff 3, retroactive to 2003.

Re:Sound relies on business directories and databases to find contact information for merchants, to whom it then sends an invoice for their "licence to play music legally." The company contacts hundreds of merchants per week, Gangnier said.

The money collected is then distributed equally among artists and record companies, who must belong to one of Re: Sound's member organizations to get the royalties.