Music streaming service, Spotify, has yet again found itself at odds with a creator in the music industry. This time around, the disagreement centers on a more novel question: Does a compilation constitute copyrightable intellectual property? According to U.K. based dance-music record label, Ministry of Sound, it does. Ministry of Sound, or MoS, has recently filed a lawsuit in the U.K. High Court against Spotify, claiming copyright infringement. MoS produces compilation albums comprised of songs which the label has not itself created, but has selected and placed in a purposeful, specific order on the album. The record label’s “beef” with Spotify is grounded in the fact that the streaming service currently allows users to create playlists that essentially emulate the compilation albums. Further irritating the label, some users even go as far as to title those playlists “Ministry of Sound.” To be clear, the users are not illegally downloading the MoS albums; they are instead legally listening to the individual tracks through the streaming service and replicating MoS’ order of the tracks in their own playlists. After pleading with Spotify to remove these playlists since last year to no avail, MoS finally had enough and essentially said, “see you in court.” This case will turn on the issue of whether or not the order/structure of the content on MoS’ albums is copyrightable.
But what are the odds that a court will actually determine that the compilation albums (in terms of their ordering of songs) constitute copyrightable material? The claim MoS is making is certainly deserving of at least some consideration. Factually, we can see how the artistic compilation of music is the result of a unique, creative process. This process may even require extensive research and hours of dedication to deriving the perfect order. For those reasons, there is an argument to be made that the end result of the process is an original work. Where MoS will likely find its greatest struggle in this lawsuit, however, is in showing that its compilation albums constitute a work original enough to be worthy of copyright protection. Since the filing of the lawsuit, many comments on the relevant articles and blog posts have shown disdain for the idea that taking music that someone else created, and placing it in a specific order on a playlist, could constitute anything that could even remotely be considered copyrightable, or truly original. When MoS’ albums are equated with mere playlists (which are viewed as lists that require no skill or real effort to produce) the future for MoS in this lawsuit against Spotify doesn’t look so bright.
While the public consensus seems to be that MoS’ claim simply does not hold water, the worlds of music, technology, and copyright should certainly keep a close eye on this case, as the possibility exists that the UK court could side with MoS. This is an issue of copyright definition and protection that the courts have not yet faced (MoS is the first label to make this type of claim), and it could wind up being a real game changer for the industries involved. If MoS wins, this could strike a major blow to the business model of Spotify and other music streaming services that allow users to create playlists, as playlists are becoming an increasingly prevalent and important form of music consumption. If MoS loses, the compilation sales business model for MoS may prove unsustainable—will people continue buying the compilation albums when they can just recreate the same playlist for free on Spotify? Additionally, MoS’ claim could be the catalyst for similar claims to be brought in US courts.
Through these cases, law and technology continue to shape the ways in which we view art and originality. In today’s world, where will the court draw the line of what is and is not art in the sense of copyright?
To find out, we’ll just have to stay tuned.