Spotify Still Wrangling with Songwriter Royalties

On January 8 of this year, The Trichordist ran a story that the Huffington Post apparently rejected in which indie musician Blake Morgan describes a closed-door meeting between Spotify executives and a group of musicians.  According to Morgan, he actually had to explain that Spotify’s “product” is not Spotify itself but music—music that Morgan and his friends make, and which Spotify monetizes.  And that’s fine, even welcome, if the company pays for licenses.

But Spotify has a big—potentially very big—problem when it comes to paying for mechanical licenses, which compensate songwriters and composers for their compositions, regardless of which artist(s) perform the work.  These licenses are required for reproduction under §106(1) or distribution under §106(3) of the Copyright Act; and based on precedent, a streaming service like Spotify is held to both reproduce and distribute musical compositions.

Unfortunately, the company has allegedly failed to pay for mechanicals for thousands of compositions, which is why it currently faces litigation from several complainants with potential damages running into billions of dollars.  Biggest among these is the Wixen Publishing suit, filed on the eve of the Music Modernization Act (now law) first being introduced in committee.  The suit implicates around $1.6 billion in damages for failure to license works by songwriters including Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks, Neil Young, et al.

With such prominent names in the mix, one might think that Spotify’s original defense (i.e. that rights holders are hard to find) would not have held up very well.  And it did not hold up very well, as exemplified by the comparatively modest Lowery/Ferrick class-action suit, which settled in May 2017 for a $43 million fund to various songwriters.   

Then, with the pending Music Modernization Act, which would bring an end to new litigation over failure to obtain mechanicals, late 2017 saw a spate of new complaints against Spotify for its apparently sweeping failure to secure these licenses.  And perhaps it was the extinction-scale degree of the potential damages that then inspired fresh creativity in Spotify’s defenses.

In a September 2017 post, I described the suits filed by Bluewater Music Services and songwriter/musician/producer Robert Gaudio.  In its initial response to this complaint, Spotify implied that, as a streaming platform, it was never obligated to pay for mechanical licenses.  This drew immediate reaction from the National Music Publishers Association and CEO David Israelite’s declaration that the platform was then “in a fight with all songwriters.”

Spotify’s rationale in that brief was that streaming only implicates the right of public performance and not distribution; but as I noted in that post last September, even if a court agreed with this interpretation (and that is a big IF), this would still leave the reproduction right, for which a mechanical license is still required.  This no-license-needed defense remains among Spotify’s arguments in its current filings, but according to a recent article by Eriq Gardner in The Hollywood Reporter, the streaming company has introduced a new theory to the Bluewater case.

Because Bluewater administers copyrights for publisher clients, but is not the owner of those copyrights, Spotify questions whether the company has standing to sue for infringement of the mechanical right for all the titles named in its complaint.  Spotify’s theory turns on the premise that because a) Bluewater is not empowered to license for less than statutory rates without written consent of its publisher clients; and b) because any party can obtain a mechanical license at the statutory rate by filing a Notice of Intention (NOI) with the Copyright Office, then Bluewater’s authority to grant the license is non-exclusive. If that’s the case, Spotify contends, then Bluewater does not have standing to sue for these alleged infringements.

Spotify’s argument hinges substantially on the fact that mechanical licenses are compulsory.  No songwriter/composer can deny any party a mechanical license to use a musical work as written.  On the other hand, these owners can authorize parties like Bluewater to administer those rights on their behalf, so if this reads like a very fine parsing on Spotify’s part, it will be interesting to see whether the court thinks so, too.  In either case, a mechanical licensing after January 2018 is subject to the terms of the MMA, so it seems doubtful that the Sixth Circuit opinion will have substantial effect going forward regardless of how it rules.

It was Devlin Hartline at the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property (CPIP) who shared this story on Twitter, so I asked his view, and he replied …

“It’s quite noteworthy that Spotify summons no support in the case law for its newfound position that there can be no exclusive licensee of the mechanical rights in a musical work at the statutory rate since there’s no exclusivity given the compulsory license. The compulsory mechanical license has existed since the Copyright Act of 1909. If the argument had any merit, you’d think Spotify would be able to find at least some precedent in support. Instead, this move comes across as another desperate attempt by Spotify to avoid paying for the works that it failed to license properly in the first place.”

Further, Hartline opined in his tweet Spotify counsel Christopher Sprigman’s presentation of this unique defense might be another reason to be concerned about his leading the Restatement on Copyright Law initiative at the American Law Institute.  As described in a January post, some prominent copyright skeptics have pushed for this Restatement project, which is unprecedented in the annals of all statutory law—not just copyright.  As I wrote in that post …

ALI Restatements have never been written for comprehensive federal laws like copyright because these are already statutory, or black-letter, laws.  Congress writes the statutes, the judiciary interprets them, and attorneys make their arguments; but everybody’s working from the same statutes and a much more narrow body of case law than common law entails.   Hence, this request for a Restatement of copyright law represents an end-run around Congress—an effort to reshape the Copyright Act without a legislative process.

Sprigman is counsel for Spotify; he’s the lead Reporter on this ALI Restatement project; and he’s the co-author of a paper called The Second Digital Disruption (see two-part response here), which rather speciously asserts that because market data reduces risk, this obviates the author’s need for strong copyright protections.  Not that I generally like picking on any one individual, but it just so happens that Sprigman’s name seems to feature in a trifecta of the anti-copyright agenda—litigation, policy, and academia—and largely in the service of billion-dollar tech companies like Spotify that don’t even know they’re in the music business.  

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