Did ASCAP Threaten to Sue the Girl Scouts Over Campfire Songs?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about music and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the movie urban legends featured so far.

MUSIC URBAN LEGEND: ASCAP tried to have the Girl Scouts pay for copyrighted songs performed around campfire.

Just last year, President Barack Obama, along with First Lady Michelle Obama, hosted 50 Girl Scouts to a mock campfire on the White House lawn…

Singing songs around a campfire is a longtime Girl Scout tradition.

However, did you know that at one point in 1996, ASCAP threatened to sue the Girl Scouts if they didn’t pay for the right to perform said songs at the campfire? Read on to see what happened!

ASCAP stands for the America Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. It is a not-for-profit organization that handles the compensation of its members if their music is performed, whether via radio broadcast or a live performance. If you do a concert at a music venue, ASCAP collects a fee to cover any of the songs that are performed at the concert (the venue typically pays a standard flat fee, and then ASCAP doles out the money).

The issue is that “live performance” could mean songs that are sung around the campfire at Girl Scouts camp, and that’s just what happened in 1995 when ASCAP began informing camps around the United States that they had to pay a fee to cover the copyrighted songs being performed.

“They buy paper, twine and glue for their crafts – they can pay for the music, too,” says John Lo Frumento, ASCAP’s chief operating officer. If offenders keep singing without paying, he says, we will sue them if necessary.”

The camps would be charged a rate depending on how big the camp was and how many kids were attending.

The Girl Scouts responded by trying to sing only songs not protected by copyright (songs in the public domain, like “Row, row, row your boat”).

“At first I thought, ‘You guys have got to be kidding,'” says Sharon Kosch, the council’s director of program services. “They can’t sing the songs? But it’s pretty threatening. We were told the penalty can be $5,000 and six days in jail.” So the camp’s directors have scrutinized its official “Elf Manual” and, in the section headed “Favorite Songs at Diablo Day Camp,” have crossed out the most popular copyrighted tunes with black Magic Marker.

After a lot of public outrage, though, ASCAP backed off, and claimed that they NEVER intended to charge the fees to not-for-profit camps like the Girl Scouts, only for-profit camp organizations. They claimed that they had just bought a list of for-profit camps and sent out notices to all of them, not knowing that some of them were not-for-profit camps. That, of course, is at odds with Lo Frumento’s statements when this was first announced, but hey, at least they backed off.

Currently, they charge a nominal $1 fee from the Girl Scouts and similar organizations.

The legend is…

STATUS: True

Thanks to Lisa Bannon and Ken Ringle for their reports on the original issue and the subsequent resolution.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future urban legends columns! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

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