Many employers are unaware that playing any kind of music in the workplace constitutes a public performance, and so to do so requires a music licence from the Performance Rights Society (PRS) to stay within the law.

Employers require a licence to play music from radios, CDs, TVs, over a telephone system and even for live music performances. Failure to obtain such a licence can result in a hefty bill, as many businesses have found out to their cost.

The good news is that small business owners, many of whom are paying hundreds of pounds so they can legally play music at work, are now able to complain to an ombudsman if they believe they have been treated unfairly by the PRS.

The ombudsman was recommended in a consultation into the new PRS code of practice following a number of complaints from small businesses about the organisation, including less-than-courteous phone calls and unexplained price increases.

However, many small businesses have no idea the service, which was launched in July 2009, exists. A PRS licence is a legal requirement and of course an ombudsman is a good way of addressing small business concerns, but it is already difficult to accept yet another cost to businesses. Without a well-understood model such as the TV licence, the frustrations of many small businesses are only compounded by the lack of clarity and information.

Some people I’ve spoken to are concerned the Society’s guidance is badly constructed and confusing. There are over 40 price tariffs on its Web site, listing the many different costs of purchasing a licence, depending on various factors such as the size of a business. I’ve also heard that PRS staff often themselves do not understand the pricing structure, and even appear to have an agenda to catch firms out.

I can only presume the PRS is geared towards getting the maximum amount of money it can. But now there’s an ombudsman, it should hopefully become less confusing.