By: Erin M. Jacobson, Esq.
This article was first published on Forbes.com.
Spotify has waged a war with the music industry. The streaming company has a history of not paying mechanical royalties to songwriters and music publishers, and has already settled two separate class action lawsuits for failure to pay mechanical royalties – the first brought on behalf of music publishers by the National Music Publisher’s Association (NMPA) and the second, known as the Lowery/Ferrick case, brought by independent songwriters. Now, a host of top songwriters, including Tom Petty and members of Rage Against the Machine, Weezer, The Black Keys, and more, have come forward urging the court not to approve the terms of the Lowery/Ferrick case. These songwriters oppose the settlement amount in the Lowery/Ferrick case because when the costs are broken down, Spotify’s liability for not paying mechanical royalties would be to pay a mere $3.82 per infringed composition. The maximum liability under the law for copyright infringement is $150,000 per infringed composition. Quite the difference.
As I previously reported, Spotify was also hit with two independent lawsuits – again for failure to pay mechanical royalties — brought by songwriter/publisher Bob Gaudio and music administrator Bluewater Services Corporation. Even more recently, seven other music publishers have sued Spotify for the same violation.
The Gaudio/Bluewater suits accused Spotify’s practices being reminiscent of Napster, which caused Spotify to fire back with the outrageous claim that Spotify should not have to pay mechanical royalties to songwriters and music publishers at all. More realistically, Spotify has argued that copyright law does not define streaming and places the burden on the plaintiffs to show that Spotify is creating a “reproduction” and therefore required to pay mechanical royalties.
As I explained in my last article, streaming requires several licenses – sound recording licenses from the record labels; performance licenses for the compositions from performance rights organizations such as ASCAP and BMI; and mechanical licenses for the reproduction of the compositions. Spotify now argues that it is akin to other streaming services like Pandora, who only have to pay performance royalties. However, Spotify’s argument is flawed for several reasons.
- First, Pandora and similar services online radio services are classified as non-interactive services because a user cannot choose to listen to a specific song on demand. This is similar to terrestrial radio, except it’s online instead of on the FM dial. In contrast, a Spotify user can choose and play any song the user wishes on demand, which makes Spotify an interactive service. Copyright law makes important distinctions between non-interactive and interactive services, and for the relevant purposes here, the most important difference is that non-interactive services are only required to pay performance royalties (as the use is only a performance, again, like terrestrial radio) and interactive services are required to pay both performance and mechanical royalties (because the nature of the technology actually consists of a reproduction of the data file in addition to the performance itself). Therefore, Spotify cannot rely on the requirements of a separately classified type of service when those requirements don’t apply to Spotify’s service.
- Second, Spotify has previously stated that it “needs” mechanical rights as part of its operations and has argued in rate court proceedings to weigh in on what mechanical rate amounts it should have to pay. It is both hypocritical and faulty reasoning for Spotify to say it needs certain rights and subsequently argue the opposite.
- Third, Spotify has previously settled the two class action lawsuits mentioned above in order to rectify its previous non-payment of mechanical royalties. Spotify’s excuse in these cases was that it was too difficult to pay everyone owed due to the lack of a comprehensive music industry database. Once again, Spotify previously accepted that it needed to pay mechanical royalties, but made excuses for its failure to do so, which is in direct opposition to its current claim that it does not need to pay mechanical royalties at all.
- Fourth, the music industry has long ago come to a consensus that an interactive stream does require a mechanical license and there is evidence that Spotify actually does create reproductions of the files, specifically on users’ mobile phones.
While Spotify’s argument that a stream does not require a mechanical license was recently rejected in court, Spotify can still continue asserting that argument going forward. If a legal decision in Spotify’s favor set a precedent on this issue, it could mean massive losses of income to songwriters, music publishers, and the music industry as a whole. While there are several theories as to why Spotify has taken this approach, the simplest answer seems the most obvious – Spotify doesn’t want to pay. The scariest part of this whole situation is that with Spotify’s massive amount of funds, it has the power to continue litigating this issue with efforts to change the laws and practices of the industry to conform to its unwillingness to pay for the music it uses. It is unacceptable that Spotify has built its entire business on the usage of music content, but yet continually tries to get out of paying for the very content that sustains its customer base. Without music, there is no Spotify and it’s time Spotify stopped making excuses and started to value the music that built its business.
*This article does not constitute legal advice.
Erin M. Jacobson is a music attorney whose clients include Grammy and Emmy Award winners, legacy clients and catalogs, songwriters, music publishers, record labels, and independent artists and companies. She is based in Los Angeles where she handles a wide variety of music agreements and negotiations, in addition to owning and overseeing all operations for Indie Artist Resource, the independent musician’s resource for legal and business protection. Ms. Jacobson also serves on the boards of the California Copyright Conference (CCC) and Association of Independent Music Publishers (AIMP).