Will Spotify Miss a Beat? London High Court to Decide on Playlists’ Copyright Protection
Spotify, a music-streaming service, once touted as a benefit to the music industry to avoid anti-piracy, is now being sued for copyright infringement. Spotify, founded in Sweden, now has over 24 million users in 28 different countries and offers 20 million songs. Spotify allows users to search and discover music, build their own playlists, follow and share music with other users via social media, and use the radio feature. Ministry of Sound, a U.K. dance music record label, is alleging that Spotify’s playlist feature enabled users to “mimic the order of the label’s popular compilation albums” constituting a copyright infringement. When the U.K. label discovered that users were titling their playlists “Ministry of Sound” with the exact track order of their compilation albums, they wrote to Spotify requesting that they take the playlists down. Spotify refused. After exchanged legal letters, Ministry of Sound filed legal proceedings in the U.K. High Court in London on Monday, September 30th. They are seeking an injunction, requiring the removal of the user playlists, as well as damages and costs.
Ministry of Sound is not the first to attempt to pull their music from Spotify. Led Zepplin and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke have recently pulled songs and albums from this service. Yorke and Godrich of Radiohead were motivated by unfair royalty payments and plead, “someone gotta say something. It’s bad for new music.” In an editorial piece in the Guardian, Ministry of Sound CEO, Lohan Presencer, claims he too “can no longer remain silent. This so-called savior of the industry and enemy of the pirates is allowing compilations to be used without permission and refusing to take action when told about the problem.” The largest part of Ministry of Sound’s business comes from sales of compilation albums, Presencer explains, they “painstakingly creates, compile and market our albums all over the world.”
Spotify offers three levels of service—“Free”, which provides free and instant music on your desktop and laptop, with advertisement interruptions; “unlimited,” with no advertisements or commitment at $4.99 a month; and “premium,” which enables listeners to listen on all devices, download music and listen offline with no advertisements or commitment for $9.99 a month. At each level, users can search and discover new music, build their own playlists, follow and share music with other users, and use the radio feature. Presencer questions Spotify’s ability to sustain its business model with loses over $154 million and with 80% of its users on the free service. He further asserts “the money Spotify pays labels is not necessarily flowing through to artists. Also, Spotify isn’t paying all labels.”
While Ministry of Sound might not be the first to request content removal, they are the first to present a claim that a playlist is subject to copyright protection. Andy Sellars, a staff attorney for the Digital Media Law Project at Harvard University, states that “the usual practice would definitely be to register the collective album [for copyright protection], along with the artwork that’s on the album and things like that.” He is not aware of any legal claims involving playlists. According to Sellars, it all “comes down to whether songs that are streamed one at a time and don’t reside on a user’s hard drive exist independently or whether they should be viewed as a ‘collective work’ because they are organized in a playlist.”
E. Michael Harrington, a music-business professor and member of the Future of Music Coalition advisory indicated in an e-mail to TIME magazine, “compiling a list of songs you like in a specific order deserves as much copyright protection as compiling a list of things on did in Manhattan today.” Some even believe “the label is just upset because it has not reached an agreement with Spotify over licensing fees and Spotify has refused to take down playlists imitating the label’s albums.” Despite all of the doubts, Ministry of Sound contends that “the law protects the expertise and creative effort involved in creating compilation albums that have helped millions of music fans world-wide discover new genres, recordings and catalogs.”