A Research Group Says They Have Evidence That Spotify Broke the Law — and Were Bullied to Withhold It

A Research Group Says They Have Evidence That Spotify Broke the Law — and Were Bullied to Withhold It
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Spotify’s lawyers are accused of leveling threats after a Swedish researcher tied the company to piracy.

Over 140 million monthly active users.  60 million paid subscribers and growing.  Over $3 billion in revenue.

Impressive.  But did you know that the major streaming platform started out streaming pirated MP3s?

That’s the dirty allegation from a Swedish research team, which found the company seeding its early service with illegally-downloaded MP3s.  Spotify apparently doesn’t want you to know.  And they threatened a team or researchers who planned to publish the details.

So, Spotify initially started as a pirate service?

Swedish writer and investigator Rasmus Fleischer first made that claim months ago.  A key figure in the early days of The Pirate Bay, he co-wrote a book detailing Spotify’s history.

According to his investigation, Spotify streamed pirated MP3 files in one of its first beta versions.  The company had apparently sourced audio files from The Pirate Bay.

Speaking to Swedish publication DI back in May, Fleischer said,

The entire Spotify beta period and its early launch history was propelled by the Pirate Bay.  They’d never have had that much attention without the Pirate Bay happening.  The company’s early history coincides with the Pirate Party emerging as a hot topic, with the trial of the Pirate Bay in Stockholm District Court.”

Spotify employees, claimed Fleischer, provided the pirated MP3s.

It distributed mp3 files that employees uploaded from their hard drives.

To verify the claims, the investigator sent the company an e-mail.

I emailed them and asked then how they got that music.  They simply said ‘right now during our beta launch, we’re using whatever music we can find’.

That exact charge brought down one-time Spotify competitor Grooveshark.  Spotify, alleges Fleischer, did the exact same thing, specifically distributing pirated music between May 2007 and May 2008.

Grooveshark went out of business shortly after losing in court against Universal Music Group and other labels in 2015.   The company was forced to issue a humiliating apology on grooveshark.com, and relinquish its heavily-trafficked url.  Grooveshark’s legal defense was led by John Rosenberg of Rosenberg & Giger.

But the main question that Fleischer was researching was different: can robots manipulate streaming platforms?

Funded by the Swedish Research Council, Fleischer works as part of a five-man research team.

Speaking with TorrentFreak, Fleischer claims that Spotify had known about the project for years.  Yet, the team never focused their research specifically on Spotify’s pirated MP3s.

Fleischer said that the team had initially planned to conduct experiments to see if the platform’s system “could be manipulated” or “was open to abuse.”

We have also investigated on a small scale the possibilities of manipulating the system.  However, we have not collected any data about real users.  Our proposed methods appeared several years ago in our research funding application, which was approved by the Swedish Research Council, which was already noted in 2013.

Don’t tell anyone about pirated MP3s, though.

Yet, after Fleischer’s interview with DI, Spotify “looked at ways to try and stop his team’s research.”  The platform’s attorneys allegedly sent a strongly-worded letter, pressuring the team to stop the project.

Fleischer revealed the content of the letter.

“On May 19, our project manager received a letter from Benjamin Helldén-Hegelund, a lawyer at Spotify.  The timing was hardly a coincidence.  Spotify demanded that we ‘confirm in writing’ that we had ‘ceased activities contrary to their Terms of Use’.

The platform had also sent a similar letter to the Swedish Research Council, accusing the team of manipulating data.

Fleischer shared what the letter said.

Spotify is particularly concerned about the information that has emerged regarding the research group’s methods in the project.  The data indicate that the research team has deliberately taken action that is explicitly in violation of [the platform’s] Terms of Use and by means of technical methods they sought to conceal these breaches of conditions.”

“The research group has worked, among other things, to artificially increase the number of plays and manipulate [the platform’s] services using scripts or other automated processes.

“Spotify assumes that the systematic breach of its conditions has not been known to the Swedish Research Council and is convinced that the Swedish Research Council is convinced that the research undertaken with the support of the Swedish Research Council in all respects meets ethical guidelines and is carried out reasonably and in accordance with applicable law.

Fleischer quickly defended the project.  He admitted that his team had used methods that violated Spotify’s Terms of Use.  Yet, the team never looked to exploit nor manipulate the platform for personal gain.

“The purpose was simply to test if it is true that Spotify could be manipulated on a larger scale, as claimed by journalists who did similar experiments.  It is also true that we ‘sought to hide these crimes’ by using a VPN connection.”

With the strongly worded letter, Fleischer claims that Spotify’s lawyers “blended complaints together.”  They also presented “grounds for legal action” after Fleischer told DI about the pirated MP3s.

The argument was quite ridiculous.  Nevertheless, the letter could not be interpreted as anything other than an attempt by [the platform] to prevent us from pursuing the research project.

Fleischer added that the company’s legal threats have slowed down their research.  Yet, the research team won’t stop.

“It must be acknowledged that Spotify’s threats have taken both time and power from the project.  This seems to be the purpose when big companies go after researchers who they perceive as uncomfortable.  It may not be possible to stop the research but it can be delayed.”

Fleischer also criticized the company for opting to send legal threats instead of talking directly with the research team.

Sure, [Spotify] dislikes people being reminded of how the service started as a pirate service.  But instead of inviting an open dialogue, lawyers are sent out for the purpose of slowing down researchers.

Spotify Teardown – Inside the Black Box of Streaming Music, the book written by Fleischer and the research team, will be released on MIT Press early next year.


Image by Non Profit Organization Lawyers Oakland (CC by 2.0)

5 Responses

  1. Anonymous

    It’s certainly a PR problem. Whether it’s a legal problem depends on the statutes of limitations for copyright infringement in the countries in which they were operating at the time this happened. I suppose if nothing else, it provides context as to their current legal predicaments. A company who began with no licenses at all might be seen as being less concerned about only using music in which publishing rights are licensed.

  2. Anonymous

    Didn’t see any threats or bullying. What am I missing?

    • Anonymous

      These researchers were conducting experiments to see if the platform’s system “could be manipulated” or “was open to abuse.” That sounds like “white-hat” hacking to me. While it may have been well-intentioned, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for Spotify to ask them to stop doing that, irrespective of any revelations about historical unlicensed mp3s.

  3. PJ looker

    Difference between Spotify and Grooveshark was that while they both started off as thieves. Spotify had a mature board that engaged the labels when they were contacted by them. Grooveshark did the exact opposite, Sina and Sam are the two smartest people out there that tanked the company and killed the co-founder.