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Ministry Of Sound sues Spotify over playlists

By | Published on Wednesday 4 September 2013

Ministry Of Sound

Ministry Of Sound’s battles are always interesting, but its latest bit of litigation is fascinating. The clubbing firm has sued Spotify because the streaming company has refused to remove playlists posted to its platform by users which copy tracklistings of compilation albums released by the Ministry label.

Although Ministry is yet to licence music from its catalogue of original releases to Spotify, most of the tracks on the firm’s famous compilation releases belong to other labels, often majors, and are therefore available via the streaming service, enabling users to organise said tracks into playlists in the order they appear on their favourite Ministry compos. But, argues Ministry, intellectual property exists in the curation of the compilation records, in addition to the various copyrights that exist in the featured tracks.

Speaking to The Guardian, Ministry boss Lohan Presencer says his company has been talking to Spotify about this issue for some time but without resolution, hence why the label went legal yesterday. Never one to mince his words, Presencer told the broadsheet: “It’s been incredibly frustrating: we think it’s been very clear what we’re arguing, but there has been a brick wall from Spotify”.

The lawsuit, assuming it actually reaches the courtroom, could prove to be a very interesting test case. Some of the playlists Ministry has tried to have removed from Spotify actually include the clubbing brand’s name in their title, and in those scenarios there may well be a case under trademark or passing off laws. But more interesting is the question as to whether copyright applies to curation.

Under UK law, copyright exists in listings, including TV schedules and football fixtures, so there is precedent for protecting the copyright in lists. In some of the test cases around listings IP, it was ruled that the copyright existed to reward the effort of those who compiled the data. And something similar could be said to the individuals and companies who compile music for compilation releases.

Though lawyers for Spotify would presumably argue that copyright in playlists would be a step too far, and hard to enforce. TV or football listings consist of a specific arrangement of programmes or games that are unlikely to be replicated by other parties.

If compilations – and playlists – consist, as they often do, of just tens of tracks, and millions of playlists are being created, there’s an argument that identical playlists could be routinely created (and what about radio playlists, where certain radio networks have very similar lists to their competitors?).

If publishing a list identical to another would open the curator up to a copyright infringement claim, that would make playlisting a risky business. Unless the law could be refined to only apply if a defendant deliberately ripped off someone else’s curated list.

So, plenty of topics for debate if and when this lawsuit gets to court. Meanwhile Presencer points out to The Guardian: “Everyone is talking about curation, but curation has been the cornerstone of our business for the last 20 years. If we don’t step up and take some action against a service and users that are dismissing our curation skills as just a list, that opens up the floodgates to anybody who wants to copy what a curator is doing”.

Even if you think Presencer has a point, Ministry’s lawsuit will pose some PR challenges for the music company. Because while Spotify-bashing has been in fashion of late, the litigation indirectly targets Spotify users too who enjoy the playlisting process.

Some will almost certainly accuse Ministry of suing in a bid to rescue its compilation business, once a cash cow for the firm, but less successful in recent years (though, perversely, in the download space compilations are undergoing something of a revival this year).

Meanwhile those labels not in the compilations business who are starting to see getting tracks playlisted on Spotify-style platforms as an increasingly important marketing objective (so to ensure sustained long-term streaming royalties) probably won’t support moves to throw a spanner in the works for the playlisting phenomenon.

Whether others in the compilations space will come out as supporters remains to be seen. The big major-label owned compo franchise, ‘Now That’s What I Call Music’, has embraced Spotify, though Sony and Universal own many of the tracks featured, and therefore receive royalties if people play Now playlists via streaming platforms for the individual songs rather than the curated list.

But either way, anyone in the curation game will be watching this case with interest. And some may be checking the contracts with the DJs or contractors they employed to curate their mixes. Because if there is copyright in the curation, but that’s not mentioned in those agreements, the rights might sit with the individual curator rather than the label.