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Spotify sued for user playlisting (UPDATE)

UPDATE: The Guardian reports that the two sides of this dispute have reached an out-of-court, non-financial settlement. The Spotify playlists in question, which replicate compilation albums produced by British label Ministry of Sound, will be removed from Spotify’s search engine, but not removed from the service. The playlists will also be unavailable for “following,” which means user have no way to archive the lists for future listening.

Essentially, this means the playlists will become invisible, while still remaining on the system. Spotify users will be able to re-create Ministry of Sound compilation albums as playlists, without repercussion. But those playlists will be invisible to other users.

What does it all mean? Not much. The most interesting question — whether a music-service playlist can be a copyrighted product — remains undecided in court.

Original post:

In an interesting, possibly unmeritorious case that one lawyer characterizes as a “battle of metaphors,” Ministry of Sound (MoS), a British record label specializing in compilation albums, has brought action against Spotify over user playlisting, a core Spotify function. The playlists at issue are ones that mimic MoS compilations.

According to a report in Time, the label does not license to Spotify, so its albums are not found in the service. But tracks owned by other labels, licensed by Ministry of Sound for its compilations, are in the Spotify library. Accordingly, Spotify users can listen to those tracks and add them to personalized playlists. The problem arises when users replicate MoS album collections as Spotify playlists.

The legal question is unusual, and possibly unprecedented. Is the ordering of an album collection by itself, and separate from branding, artwork, and track licensing, considered intellectual property? The usage displacement would seem to favor MoS’s argument: to whatever extent Spotify replaces album purchases, public access to a playlist identical to the listening experience of an MoS album would seem to impede MoS business interests. But Spotify is on legal footing with both its track licensing and the playlisting function viewed by itself. 

No prediction of how this will play out, but the case will be interesting to follow.

Brad Hill

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