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Sometimes when I access IRLP nodes, they have a very short melody telling you that you are connected; or when my local repeater's net begins, it does the famous doorbell 8-note sequence. What is the fine line of prohibited and allowed with respect to music?

Is it that overtone usage, like a Sine-wave 6 tone melody, is allowed, but if a piano is used, it would be prohibited?

Or is it the length, like a 2-second little access melody, is allowed, but it can't go on forever?

Or is it what we define as common music, like a 3 minute song, would be prohibited, but random sequences of sine waves for a few seconds would be allowed?

DTMF in a sense could be avant-garde music from John Cage or Karlheinz Stockhausen, who loved the sounds on his shortwave radio and incorporated all of the unique sounds he heard in his music.

So what breaks the barrier for the FCC rules on music or other non-voice audio transmissions?

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    $\begingroup$ I've always thought some digital modes sounds very musical... $\endgroup$ Oct 26 '13 at 1:40
  • $\begingroup$ 1. I was talking to my son on 2 meters, and he said he could hear my radio in the back ground and this is prohibited. 2. Also, one chatter stated that music could be rebroadcasted FROM the space station. I was told we could broadcast music TO the station. Please comment... thank you $\endgroup$ Oct 14 '20 at 15:14
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FCC 97.113 states that the following is prohibited:

(4) Music using a phone emission except as specifically provided elsewhere in this section; communications intended to facilitate a criminal act; messages encoded for the purpose of obscuring their meaning, except as otherwise provided herein; obscene or indecent words or language; or false or deceptive messages, signals or identification.

Looking around, the best I could find is that this rule is intended to prevent general purpose broadcasting, specifically with the purpose to entertain.

From this website, there is an interesting quote on music. I wouldn't take this as law, but it is worth considering:

Similarly, the transmission of music is also prohibited (with one exception: music incidental to an authorized retransmission of communications from the Space Shuttle is permitted). However, there is reportedly a ruling that one ham singing "Happy Birthday" on the air to another ham does not count as the "transmission of music", presumably because most hams seem to be unable to sing. Again, this is a non-compete regulation; if you want to transmit music the FCC wants you to use the broadcast service or a low power service to accomplish your purpose, not amateur radio. If your interest in radio is to be an on-air DJ, again, amateur radio might not be for you, and you should consider looking elsewhere.

Bottom line, if something that is purely incidental to the conversation, or if you are transmitting it digitally, you can actually have a bit of music and not get your hand slapped by the FCC. Thus, the doorbell seems fine, and most likely the types of "Windows Sounds" that sometimes come up, but personally, I wouldn't risk it. If you are trying to broadcast then you are almost certainly in violation of the law.

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    $\begingroup$ So this means I am allowed to sing happy birthday? $\endgroup$
    – Skyler 440
    Nov 1 '13 at 1:44
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    $\begingroup$ @Skyler440: At least, the FCC turns a blind eye to it. Don't quote me though! $\endgroup$ Nov 1 '13 at 2:01
  • $\begingroup$ @Skyler440 Another problem is that song is copyrighted... "In 2008, Warner collected about \$5,000 per day (\$2 million per year) in royalties for the song (happy birthday to you)" Wikipedia: Happy Birthday to You $\endgroup$
    – Paul
    Dec 22 '14 at 10:56
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    $\begingroup$ The song is NOT copyrighted. Warner was sued in 2013 by an independent filmmaker who balked at paying fifteen hundred dollars for use of seventeen seconds of a song for which Warner may have never actually owned the copyright. In 2016 Warner/Chappell settled for 14 million dollars to be repaid to the licensees and to admit the song is "public domain". $\endgroup$
    – Upnorth
    Oct 27 '17 at 5:04
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    $\begingroup$ There is reportedly a ruling that one ham singing "Happy Birthday" on the air to another ham does not count as the "transmission of music" No source is given in the linked article, so {{citation needed}}, is it true, or just a urban legend? $\endgroup$ Sep 25 '20 at 1:42
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Complete rules are here http://www.arrl.org/files/file/Regulatory/Part%2097%20-%2004-28-2011.pdf

MY understanding of it is "transmissions that are intended to be one-way", i.e., broadcasting. Singing "Happy Birthday" to another ham operator would be directed at that other ham, not the general public or anyone in range of the transmitter. That said, I am not sure what is meant by "music from a phone emission", unless that is a roundabout way of saying that you can't put your microphone up to your Walkman playing Bon Jovi, but you yourself could sing provided its not intended to be one way to a general audience. One thing I remember from my exam study was that if you are making a phone call through an autopatch and you get put on hold and it has the "on hold music" that you have to disconnect the call; even though you yourself are not playing music, you're still allowing it (incidentally) to be transmitted.

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    $\begingroup$ The link to "Part 97 - 04-28-2011.pdf" is broken -- the ARRL says here, "For the most updated Part 97 content, please visit: www.ecfr.gov" and that "A PDF of Part 97 is available here." and "A copy of Part 97 maintained by the ARRL can be found here." $\endgroup$
    – AndyP
    Sep 26 '20 at 23:44
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The "plain meaning rule" applies. If the law doesn't define a word, the word has its everyday meaning. If an ordinary person would say that what you transmitted is music, then a judge would normally be required to agree. If you want to test the limits and argue before a judge that something isn't music, or that a particular interpretation would be "cruel or absurd" then you can, but generally speaking I wouldn't recommend it.

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With a few exceptions, broadcasting in amateur frequencies is separately illegal. Transmissions should generally be intended to get a responding transmission, but it's probably a good benchmark that it's music if you play a tune with no expectation to get a response.

Amateur radio is for communication. If it's a series of tones intended to communicate a meaning, in other words, data modulation, a courtesy tone from a repeater, doorbell, etc., it's not music. But if your "doorbell" is 2 minutes long, there's something wrong.

If you are speaking while transmitting and there happens to be music playing faintly in the background, as long as that music is not your primary intended transmission, you are probably OK. However, loud music in the background makes your speech unintelligible, it's poor practice anyway, and you should fix that if possible. For instance, let's say I'm doing an ARES event at a parade, and I'm trying to relay a message, and a marching band goes by... it's gonna be difficult, but it's not illegal, as long as the intent is the speech, not the band.

The reasoning behind this rule is that the amateur radio bandwidth is a scarce resource, and individuals trying to communicate can't compete with commercial broadcasters transmitting music. So commercial, broadcast, and music are all illegal in amateur radio, to preserve the spectrum for our use.

A lot of the law here is about intent. If the intent is to communicate, it probably isn't music. If the intent is to entertain, it probably is music.

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This is strictly my opinion, and I'm not a lawyer, but I did once read 200 Meters and Down by Clinton B. DeSoto. I don't have sources.

In the early days of radio in the US there were few rules, and hams and broadcasters used the same frequencies and interfered with each other. When rules were created separate roles for broadcasters and hams were defined and codified into law. Hams were given their own bands. However early receivers could easily pick up ham bands as well as broadcast bands, so the broadcasters asked for, and received, a law that hams would not be allowed to transmit anything that could be construed as entertainment, especially not music, so that broadcasters would have the exclusive right to broadcast entertainment.

This law, 47 CFR § 97.113(a)(4), was essentially written before World War II, when the only form of broadcasting in widespread use was AM. This law is still with us. However, the original motivation for the law prohibiting music evaporated decades ago; there is essentially no way for a ham who wanted to broadcast entertainment on the ham bands to reach a significant audience. Hams aren't allowed to transmit wideband FM or digital television. Hams are allowed to transmit AM, but only at low power levels that would be difficult to pick up well with a typical AM broadcast receiver, but broadcast receivers no longer cover the ham bands. Ham radio could conceivably be broadcast by a special interest group to allow them to get their message out, but really a low-powered broadcast TV or radio station or the internet would suit that purpose far better.

Because the original motivation for the law has completely evaporated and someone broadcasting music on the ham bands would only reach other hams, the FCC is unlikely to care much if some misguided individual were to try. Sure, the broadcasting ham would be reported, and the FCC might even bring enforcement action for the sake of form, but any such action would likely be very slow.

So the answer to the original poster's questions about whether specific things would be allowed or not is that it doesn't really matter, because nobody really cares but us hams. Let's use common sense as our guide when deciding what is allowed under the law.

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  • $\begingroup$ I do not believe there is a prohibition on transmitting digital TV. There's 4 channels in the 70cm band appropriate for that use (which correspond to cable TV frequencies in the US). I think the rest of this is spot on. $\endgroup$
    – user10489
    Feb 18 at 2:06
  • $\begingroup$ @user10489 well you learn something every day! Thanks for the info and the compliment. $\endgroup$
    – rclocher3
    Feb 18 at 2:40
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ACMA (Australia) allows 30 seconds of non-copyrighted music. If you listen to the WIA news broadcast you will see examples of that. ACMA also has no issues with with background music if you are in a noisy location and need to transmit.

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  • $\begingroup$ Hello Robert, and welcome to ham.stackexchange.com! $\endgroup$
    – rclocher3
    Feb 17 at 2:01

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