(Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. The following reflects my observations and consultations with record industry professionals.)
Dear DJ Ron,
I'll be brief- I'm pretty new at this DJing stuff but was wondering about the legal side of things I should know? If I make mixes to download or a demo CD or play my set live, are there legal things I should know about? Nobody ever talks about the legal matters with distributing artists' materials, or are they glad your spreading the word?
By mixes, I am assuming you mean a DJ-mixed set of other people's music. Legally, you have no rights to alter, copy, or distribute the copywritten works of other people. This means that by simply recording your DJ set you are breaking the law.
In practice, when you go to an industry event, you see DJs handing out mixed sets to industry people. These demo CDs are seen by DJs as promotional tools to get gigs at clubs. Of course, at anytime a record label, artist or producer can start legal proceedings and demand Cease and Desist for these actions.
Most record labels look the other way at mixed CDs as long as they are not sold (physical CDs in stores), downloadable (some labels are ok with streaming), or produced in great numbers. Hip-hop labels often see mixtapes as way to break new artists from the underground. Dance labels don't normally see mixed sets as a way to break music but rather an impediment to physical sales and digital downloads. Putting sets online for streaming or download can also get the performance societies (ASCAP, BMI and SESAC) and SoundExchange to take notice and require payment for usage.
There is a fictional belief among many DJs that by labelling a mixed CD "For Promotional Use Only" it is suddenly legal or ok. This is not accurate as stated before - you as a DJ have no rights to distribute the copyrighted works of other people.
What should you do as a DJ? Its a personal choice depending on how much risk you want to take. If you are trying to get a gig at a club, a recorded set with less than 10 copies will probably not end up with you in jail. When you start handing out mixed CDs to a lot of people or allowing downloadable sets on your website - you are probably pushing the limit or asking for trouble.