It’s a Saturday night in Camarillo and the place to be is Element Coffee, where a band entertains the crowd seeking espresso and warmth. If anything rests heavy on owner Mike Colston’s shoulders, it doesn’t show. In this carefree atmosphere, one wouldn’t suspect that the shop’s ability to host local musicians hangs in the balance.

The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) has informed Colston that if he wishes to continue to have music in his shop, he needs a subscription to its service, a murky annual plan steeped in copyright legalese and fees.

“If I want to continue having live music, I’d have to pay,” said Colston. “It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s original or not, they don’t care when I tell them that it’s all local kids who want to have their own music heard.”

What Colston didn’t realize was the extent of ASCAP’s presence in the county. After receiving notice, Colston began to hear stories akin to cautionary fables regarding other local coffee shops and restaurants.

Jay and Karen Nerdrum, owners of Latte 101 in Ventura, spent years facing ASCAP’s competitor Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) over whether or not a subscription to its similar service was necessary.

“We tried having all original music, but they still kept coming after us,” said Karen. “They told us that we couldn’t guarantee that all the music was original, and that if so many bars (of music notation) were similar to something that was copyrighted, we were still breaking the law.”

ASCAP’s invoice, sent to Element Coffee, lists in detail the type of music played and the charge for each. Having a jukebox has a different fee from playing a CD, but all combine into one lump sum due annually.

Vincent Candilora, senior vice president of licensing for ASCAP, says that it’s very clear why venues that choose to have music need their service.

“One part of the copyright law is the right of public performance,” said Candilora. “If you want to use someone’s property and play it in public — doesn’t matter if it’s a CD, iPod, background music service or live band — you need the permission of the copyright owner.”

When asked whether or not that pertains to original music, Candilora sounded as if he had heard the question several times before.

“As a practical business person, I would say, sooner or later you’re going to be performing works that are copyrighted and are in our repertoire,” he said. “If you’re just playing original music, you don’t need a license. But what do they do when [the band] steps down? Is the place silent?”

For Latte 101, it was going silent that resolved their issues with BMI.

“It was just something nice we did for our customers,” said Karen Nerdum. “They know we don’t have deep pockets. If they sued us, it would cost us thousands of dollars to defend ourselves.”

Some retailers have had to deal with copyright claims even after ridding themselves of all copyrighted material.

Chang, owner of Tipps Thai in downtown Ventura, was the subject of a dispute with BMI and ASCAP that lasted more than a year.

“We would have a band every once in a while, until they (ASCAP and BMI) began sending representatives to check on us every week,” he said. “So I began to play only old Thai music, but the BMI representative said that I still had to pay. This was old Thai music, and they claimed to have the copyright.”

It wasn’t until Chang sent BMI several discs worth of old Thai music that they stopped spying on him.

“They’re powerful. They can sue you forever,” said Chang.

From downtown night clubs to popular Chinese buffets, not a single venue owner interviewed by VCReporter was unique in its dealings with copyright enforcement.

“I’m going to put my taxes, rent and distributors before them, and to be honest, I don’t think if I had the money I would pay them,” said Colston as he looked over ASCAP’s proposal.

Colston will host live music for as long as he is able and has yet to come to a decision. For now, customers sit unknowingly in the latest copyright battleground in the county without feeling the fallout.

“If coffee shops stop playing music, then really, it’s a detriment to the musicians themselves,” said Colston. “It seems very counter intuitive.”