Spotify Sued Over User-Created Playlists

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Spotify, the fast-growing music-streaming service, has had an increasingly vocal contingent of musicians questioning whether its business model benefits the music industry as a whole. Now a record label is joining the mix, accusing Spotify of copyright infringement because of the way it handles playlists.

Ministry of Sound, a dance-music record label based in the U.K., is suing Spotify for user-generated playlists that mimic the order of the label’s popular compilation albums. The company, which is seeking to remove these playlists from the service and collect damages through a British court, argues that the curation of songs chosen for particular compilations is a form of intellectual property protected by copyright law.

“We painstakingly create, compile and market our albums all over the world. We help music fans discover new genres, records and classic catalogues,” company CEO Lohan Presencer wrote in an editorial in the Guardian. “After 20 years and more than 50 [million] album sales, the value and creativity in our compilations are self-evident.”

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The outcome of the suit could have big implications for the future of digital music. Services like Spotify, which provides access to millions of songs, are increasingly using playlists to help users make sense of the vast amount of music available. Spotify introduced a “browse” function in August through which it hand-selects quality playlists for listeners. Beats Music, an upcoming streaming music service by the company behind Beats by Dre headphones, touts playlists curated by music artists and experts as one if its greatest selling points. Songza, another service, is driven by human-selected playlists that are designed to align with specific activities and moods.

Whether these playlists — curated in much the same way as Ministry of Sound’s compilations — are under copyright protection could become a point of legal contention if users try to carry popular playlists from one platform to another. That’s exactly what some users are doing in this case, going so far as to label some playlists with the “Ministry of Sound” moniker.

“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,” says Andy Sellars, a staff attorney for the Digital Media Law Project housed at Harvard University. “I’m not aware of a case where someone has tried to claim just the playlist.”

Illegally downloading a Ministry of Sound compilation album would be an obvious case of copyright infringement, but Spotify users are listening to individual tracks that have been legally licensed by the company. The label is 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. A Spotify spokesman said he was not aware of any past situations when the company had removed a user playlist for any reason.

In legal terms, Sellars says, the dispute 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. “If there’s a lawsuit in the United States, this would come down to a battle of metaphors,” he says.

If a court rules that the user-generated playlists qualify as illegal copies of Ministry of Sound’s creative, collective works, Spotify would be on the hook for creating an environment conducive to infringement and then doing nothing about it (think Napster or Megavideo).

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But given the ubiquity of playlists in today’s music environment, Ministry of Sound may have a tough sell. “Even if Ministry of Sound claims that ‘a lot of research’ went into compiling the list, what the public sees is just a list of nouns,” E. Michael Harrington, a music-business professor and member of the Future of Music Coalition advisory board, said in an e-mail. “Compiling a list of songs you like in a specific order deserves as much copyright protection as compiling a list of things one did in Manhattan today.”

Ministry of Sound says it’s fighting the good fight for an industry that has been at the mercy of tech companies since the iTunes Store launched a decade ago. “This is a David vs. Goliath battle, but one which we have no choice in fighting,” Presencer wrote.

With the playlist gaining increased importance as a form of music consumption, it’s a battle that could spill over onto other fronts later. “As technology companies get innovative with technology,” says Sellars, “rights holders get pretty innovative with the law.”

3 comments
xrobespierre
xrobespierre

So, Ministry of Sound might be right. In the UK, the standard is the "Sweat of the Brow" doctrine, and the case is Walter v. Lane.  In that case, a reporter from the Times of London listened to a politician make a speech. The reporter took shorthand notes during the speech, then later fully transcribed the speech and added punctuation. The transcription was then published as a verbatim speech in the Times of London newspaper. Then, someone published a book containing the speech, which was taken substantially from the article in the Times of London. The Times sued and the case ultimately went to the highest court in the UK.

The court decided that although the reporters merely copied someone else's work, The effort, skill and time that they spent was sufficient to make them original. If you have worked hard to make something, the sweat on your brow is sufficient to allow for copyright protection. 

This is not the law in the U.S. Originality and creativity are required, but only a minimum of creativity.  The leading case is called Feist v. Rural. Rural published a local phone book for a small part of Northwest Kansas. Feist copied the list and placed it into its larger regional phone book that serviced many regions of Kansas. Rural lost its copyright claim because it did not use any creativity in arranging the names in the phone book. It merely listed the names alphabetically. But, Ministry of Sound chooses what songs to include and exclude, and in what order to arrange them. The court in Feist wrote, "If the selection and arrangement are original, these elements of the work are eligible for copyright protection" Thus, Ministry of Sound might have a claim. 

taylortrask
taylortrask

Harrington was spot on.  What an absurd thing to spend time and money legally going after.  If anything Ministry of Sound should be promoting and sharing the hell out of these playlists to build more awareness and customer loyalty. 

makattack
makattack

is this even legal? how can a user make a playlist exaclty the same or similar to a record company consider to be copyright? its like the same if some one say one thing and the next person copyrights the same thing they said and start to sue left and right who ever said the same thing.