Ministry of Sound Suing Spotify Over Copyright Infringement…

Compilations take time and effort to create, and they definitely represent a market.  But are they protected under copyright law?

Enter Ministry of Sound, one of the largest label groups in the world, which is now suing Spotify for copyright infringement.  The lawsuit, filed in UK High Court this week, alleges that Spotify has routinely stolen its legendary playlist compilations, or at least refused to delete them from its service.  Ministry of Sound has sold roughly 50 million compilations over the past two decades, according to an estimate from CEO Lohan Presencer.

The issue isn’t music that Ministry of Sound specifically controls; rather, it’s the playlists that they’ve assembled.  Those are all over Spotify, often labeled ‘Ministry of Sound,’ and the subject of this suit.

The question is whether carefully-crafted playlists, and the order of songs, are protected intellectual property.  “What we do is a lot more than putting playlists together: a lot of research goes into creating our compilation albums, and the intellectual property involved in that,” Presencer told the Guardian.

“It’s not appropriate for someone to just cut and paste them.”

Spotify has acknowledged the suit but has yet to comment.  Presencer is being far more vocal, and pointed to numerous (and unsuccessful) discussions with Spotify.  “After several rounds of legal letters, this dispute will now be settled in court,” Presencer offered in a statement.  “We believe we have a clear cut case.”

“After 20 years and more than 50 million album sales, the value and creativity in our compilations are self-evident.  We aim to ensure that our creativity is protected and respected.”

30 Responses

  1. Visitor

    Lol, suing over user-created playlists made from legally-available tracks is pretty embarrassing

  2. Eh?

    MOS if you want to make money from your compilations on Spotify, make them available on Spotify.
    It’s not rocket science….

  3. GGG

    I suppose there’s something behind using the name for the playlists, but I don’t see anything illegal about Spotify just changing the name and using the playlists anyway. Dickish? Sure, but if being a dick was illegal, there would be no music industry.

    • Visitor

      “I suppose there’s something behind using the name for the playlists”
      You’re right, this is the only issue here. And it’s not even copyright related; it’s a trademark question.
      Weird story.

      • Visitor

        Hm, GGG — it seems we were wrong.
        See _justen_’s comment below.

        • GGG

          Yea, this is interesting. Might open a big can of worms, though, but guess we’ll see.

  4. Visitor

    These are user-generated playlists. Spotify is not creating the playlists or naming them using the MoS name–users are.
    It’d be like a news organization suing Facebook if I copied and pasted a full article onto my wall.

    • Visitor

      “It’d be like a news organization suing Facebook if I copied and pasted a full article onto my wall.”
      …which is exactly what said news organization can do if Facebook won’t delete the article.

  5. dave

    What if two DJs on the radio play the same segue? Can one station sue the other?

  6. Paul Resnikoff

    I’m not aware of any legal protections or intellectual property protections on playlists, compilations or arrangements of existing music. Trademarks might be an issue, but then again, a user uploading a MoS-named playlist… seems shaky.
    Playlists – good playlists – are hard to create. But we may be confusing effort and labor with automatic intellectual property protection.
    See ‘dick’ comment above…

    • Visitor

      If somehow MoS comes out on top here, I’m curious what the statute of limitations would be for this? Because definitely in high school there was a dude that would copy my mixtapes that I’d love to sue for damages.

    • Zac Shaw

      § 103 . Subject matter of copyright: Compilations and derivative works
      (a) The subject matter of copyright as specified by section 102 includes compilations and derivative works, but protection for a work employing preexisting material in which copyright subsists does not extend to any part of the work in which such material has been used unlawfully.

      Not that I think MoS have a case here, but aren’t they arguiing that S103(a) protects their “playlist” because it’s part of the intellectual property of their compilation?

      As in Feist I think a playlist is clearly a “collection of knowledge” and not itself expressive content. No?

    • GGG

      I guess it makes sense, or I could just repackage something like the Indie Bible and call it GGG’s Koran.

  7. _justen_

    Can a compilation be protected by copyright is one of the more silly questions asked by DMN. You’ve covered significantly more complex copyright issues than this (ReDigi comes to mind).
    This is no phone book, and it is clearly not arbitrary. Moreover, the Copyright Office answers the question rather clearly, citing “a collection of top hits from 2004” as an example with the requisite “originality” to obtain protection.
    The question is almost always one of PR or of whether protection is appropriate, not whether protection exists.

    • Paul Resnikoff

      I’m looking at this hat, hoping I don’t have to eat it (but prepared to consume). Really good documentation, just to pull out the relevant part:
      “Compilations of data or compilations of preexisting works (also known as “collective works”) may also be copyrightable if the materials are selected, coordinated, or arranged in such a way that the resulting work as a whole constitutes a new work.”
      Thanks for commenting that.

    • Luther Riggs DJ

      So if the album is mixed like a DJ set then it would consitute a “new work.” Otherwise, its just a mixtape, like I made my girlfriend in the 7th grade, which would be considered a “non-original work.”

      • _justen_

        Those mixtapes you made in 7th grade for your girlfriend were protected by copyright in the same way a DJ mix is protected. All you had to do was register and enforce. The Copyright Act states, in part
        A “compilation” is a work formed by the collection and assembling of preexisting materials or of data that are selected, coordinated, or arranged in such a way that the resulting work as a whole constitutes an original work of authorship. 17 U.S.C. 101.
        Protectable creations are made everyday. Zac Shaw raises the point in S 103, that the compilation is actually a “derivative work,” or a work that combines, adapts, uses a portion or portions of other protected works. When they release their mixes on AmazonMP3, iTMP, or other retailers, they have to clear the underlying works–i.e., the recorded songs and the compositions–but they have a separate and distinguishable right to prevent reproduction, distribution, performance, display, etc. of the list itself.
        The gut reaction to puting some songs together into a mix on a CD is that it isn’t creative, but you would argue to your girlfriend that there was a reason each and every song on that mixtape. When there is no reason, the reason is arbitrary, or the compilation has no originality (e.g., every name of every individual registered with a phone company in alphabetical order), there can be no protection.

        • Interested party

          but you still need to have the rights to use the original material. So the mix tape is ok if the songs are in the public domain or you have made an arrangement with the owner of those rights.

    • Central Scrutinizer

      Some (not all) compilations are copyrightable. I know because I used to work in the US Copyright Office. The theory is that if there is some originality in the organization of the compilation then the work may be copyrightable. If the list is alphabetical or chronological then the work is not copyrightable.
      Recording companies register their greatist hits compilations all the time. Especially compilations of recordings of old classical works where there are no new musical compositions or sound recordings. They will also register all new liner notes and photographs along with it.
      For example a compilation of Mozarts most popular piano sonatas would probably be copyrightable. A compilation of all Mozarts piano sonatas in chronological order is not copyrightable.
      The value of a copyright in a compilation is debatable. Apparently some lawyers hired by Ministry of Sound believe they smell some easy settlement money. If Ministry of Sound has previously registered these compilations with the Copyright Office then it will be interesting to see if statutory damages apply.

      • GGG

        What if I rearranged a copyrighted compilation and put it in chronological order? (Serious question, by the way. Is there all sorts of loopholes like that?)

        • Central Scrutinizer

          Granting copyright in compilations does raise questions about what is the minimum amount of originality required n a work to make it copyrightable. Also, what is the extent of that copyright.
          You may make a compilation of Van Halen’s greatest hits for example. And that compilation can be in chronological order. You know the whole Dave versus Sammy thing. The choice of what determines a “greatest hit” is what will determine if the compilation is copyrightable.
          If you decide that the top ten greatest hits are your personal favorite VH songs and you arrange them chronologically then that is probably enough to be copyrightable.
          If you decide that the top ten “greatest hits” are determined by sales figures and you arrange those top ten in chronological order then there might not be enough creativity or originality to qualify for copyright. btw the copyright office does not like the terms originality or creativity.
          Likewise, if you take a pre-existing greatest hits list and arrange chronologically that may not be enough to be copyrightable.
          So bad news is the chronological arrangement of a pre-existing compilation may not be copyrightable. Good news is the owner of the pre-existing copyright can’t prevent you from publishing your compilation because your compilation is not the same as their pre-existing compilation. Their copyright exists in the order contained in the deposit submitted with their registration materials. Their copyright does not allow them to prevent others from arranging the same songs in a different order.
          Also good news, if you send that compilation in, the copyright office will register your claim. Wheteher the work is copyrightable or there is any value in that copyright or you are infringing someone else’s copyright you will have to find out on your own. If you find out later that the work is uncopyrightable then would be a little embarrasing for the CO b/c they are supposed to at least weed out those registrations that are uncopyrightable works.
          Bonus question: Can a recording company send in a list of recordings printed on a piece of paper (not the CD) to register a compilation of pre-existing sound recordings?

  8. David

    At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, this is a case brought by a UK company (Ministry of Sound) in a UK civil court, so it will be decided under UK copyright law. Statutes or precedents in the United States are not relevant, except to the extent that all Common Law jurisdictions can take some account of each others’ precedents. I haven’t looked into the UK case law on ‘copyright in playlists’, but I am quite sure that a company like MoS would not take action in the High Court (where the loser usually pays the winner’s costs as well as their own) unless a top QC specialising in the subject matter at issue had advised them that they had at least a reasonable chance of success.

    • _justen_

      Good call. It seems the compilation equivalent in UK copyright law is what’s called a “database”, defined as:
      a collection of independent works, data or other materials which —
      (a) are arranged in a systematic or methodical way, and
      (b) are individually accessible by electronic or other means
      In 1997 the European Database Directive added the language above, along with the following:
      databases which, by reason of the selection or arrangement of their contents, constituted the author’s own intellectual creation whall be protected as such by copyright. No other criteria shall be applied to determine their eligibility for protection. Art. 3, Database Directive (96/9/EU).
      A 2010 case regarding UK football fixtures seems to have shed light on the quantum of creativity required to pass muster. The case, Football Dataco Ltd. v. Brittens Pools Ltd., was the first to define what is meant by “intellectual creation.” The relevant portion of the holding, which stated that the act of compiling and creating the fixture tables amounted to an author’s intellectual creation, afforded the fixtures protection under UK copyright law. The Court found that the selection of which teams would play each other on which dates, with the requisite amount of choice available to the fixture-makers, was an intellectual arrangement which could be protected.
      Based on this decision, the law looks like it is on MoS’s side. I don’t have the ability to verify whether this law has stood up or been tested further in the last few years, but it might be enough to at least push Spotify into a settlement.
      For a more in-depth discussion and references, see:
      – Taveners
      – Palmer Biggs Legal
      – European Database Directive – Football Dataco Ltd. Decision

      • David

        Football Dataco have been involved in several lawsuits. They win some they lose some!
        I’m not sure whether the Ministry of Sound are taking action under the EU copyright provisions relating to databases, or under general UK law on copyright. Their concern seems to be over the use of playlists which copy the track listing of MoS compilations. Conceivably they could argue that the track listing itself is a ‘literary work’ which attracts copyright protection under UK law. While this might seem far-fetched, the Courts have interpreted ‘literary work’ very widely, to include anything expressed in written form, provided it involves some (more than negligible) skill, effort, or originality in its creation.

  9. Chris2

    I think it will be extremely unlikely that MOS would get a result here and TBH they are being arses for attempting.Yes they do have a right to protect their copyright but to go after Spotify for UGC playlists is rediculous and will give the Freetards yet another “the music industry hasn’t understood digital again” story to use as ammunition.If people upload comps saying tehy are MOS then remove them otherwise MOS why don’t you sort out your licensing and try and get streaming and download rights?

  10. Tune Hunter

    It should be RIAA suing all simmilar tune providers no matter if they ar part of Spoofy or Pandora.
    … also Shazam, Soundhound, Gracnote and lyric ID services are more ovious subject to law suit.
    All of them are very far from “fair use” doctrine!

    • Tune Hunter

      … and Ministry of Sound case just shows what is being demolishied and where we can find and monetize new opportunities.
      Are we at the gunpoint to give everything for free?
      Are we stupid or subject to unti-music plot?