Spotify Decides That Streaming Does Not Equal Reproduction, Distribution [Op-ed]

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Op-ed by Mike Masnick of Techdirt

Hold on tight: we’re going to get down into the weeds a bit on a copyright issue. In early 2016, we wrote about the “insanity of music licensing” as it related to streaming music, and Spotify in particular. This was in response to a series of class action lawsuits filed against Spotify by songwriters, claiming a failure to properly license so-called “mechanical rights.” As I noted at the time, I talked the case over with a large number of copyright lawyers — and many were left scratching their heads regarding what the lawsuit was actually about. Spotify, of course, is famous because it’s a licensed music streaming service. That’s it’s whole thing. But, as we discussed, part of the problem is that there are a ridiculous number of different possible licenses out there — many of which were designed for different types of technologies, and, when it comes to internet services, some people seem to assume that the services need to license roughly “all of them.”

So, it was always known that a company like Spotify needed to secure negotiated license to use the sound recordings (that’s from whoever holds the copyright on the actual recording — not the composition). And they had to get public performance licenses from Performance Rights Organizations (PROs). But the question in these lawsuits was about an entirely different license — the “mechanical” license. As you may have guessed from the name, a “mechanical” license comes from way back in the day, when the companies manufacturing records needed to get a license from the composer for the sake of reproducing and distributing the songs which those songwriters wrote.

And here’s where we do some copyright 101. Section 106 of the Copyright Act includes a definitive list of six rights that copyright may grant the holder an exclusive right to (absent something such as fair use). These then are the specific exclusive rights under copyright law:

  1. to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords;
  2. to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work;
  3. to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;
  4. in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly;
  5. in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to display the copyrighted work publicly; and
  6. in the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.

Copyright-symbolSo, when Spotify is licensing sound recordings from copyright holders, it’s licensing #6. And when it’s getting PRO licenses, it’s covering #4. So, here’s where things get trickier. The mechanical license — usually granted by the composers to whoever is manufacturing, say, a record or a CD, and done via someone like the Harry Fox Agency (HFA), covers the rights for #1 and #3 — to “reproduce” and to “distribute.” That makes sense in an age of vinyl records, tapes or CDs.

As we noted back when these lawsuits first came out, some of the copyright lawyers we spoke to couldn’t figure out why Spotify would even need a mechanical license in the first place. After all, it’s just “streaming” music. It’s not “reproducing” the work, nor is it “distributing” the work. Or is it? That question gets pretty murky, pretty fast. You can argue that the process of streaming involves bits being “reproduced” and “distributed” — but a counter to that is that that’s happening in such an ephemeral way, in which the “recipient” ends up with nothing, that it’s not at all the same thing. Indeed, this issue came up in an important case a few years ago, concerning the “transitory copies” that were made by Cablevision with its remote DVR. In that case, it was determined by the appeals court that transitory copies are not “copies” under #1 above. That is, they are not “reproductions.” Here’s from the ruling:

“Copies,” as defined in the Copyright Act, “are material objects … in which a work is fixed by any method … and from which the work can be … reproduced.” …The Act also provides that a work is “`fixed’ in a tangible medium of expression when its embodiment … is sufficiently permanent or stable to permit it to be … reproduced … for a period of more than transitory duration.”… We believe that this language plainly imposes two distinct but related requirements: the work must be embodied in a medium, i.e., placed in a medium such that it can be perceived, reproduced, etc., from that medium (the “embodiment requirement”), and it must remain thus embodied “for a period of more than transitory duration” (the “duration requirement”)…. Unless both requirements are met, the work is not “fixed” in the buffer, and, as a result, the buffer data is not a “copy” of the original work whose data is buffered.

That said, it did appear that Spotify had made (via HFA) at least a half-hearted effort to secure mechanical licenses anyway, often using the “Notice of Intent” process, which allows for compulsory mechanical licenses if certain rules are followed. Of course, the half-hearted nature of this appeared to have some significant gaps (gaps that HFA later started scrambling to fill).

Either way, earlier this year, we wrote about Spotify settling the big class action lawsuits it was facing, and agreeing to pay out a bunch of money. As we pointed out when that happened, it appeared that no one seemed to really want to fight out the issue in court of whether or not Spotify even needed to pay mechanicals, noting that such a fight would, undoubtedly, get messy.

Well, things are getting messy.

After that settlement, not all composers were happy. Some of them, including Bob Gaudio, from the Four Seasons, sued Spotify over the same issue — and argued that the settlement of the previous lawsuits was an “empty gesture” given just how massive the copyright infringement was on Spotify. In other words, these new cases seemed a lot less willing to settle. And that means, the issue we never thought was going to get tested in court… is looking like it’s going to get tested in court. As first covered by Eriq Gardner at the Hollywood Reporter, Spotify has now directly argued that its service does not reproduce or distribute the songs it streams. From the filing:

Plaintiffs allege that Spotify “reproduce[s]” and “distribute[s]” Plaintiffs’ works…, thereby facilely checking the boxes to plead an infringement of the reproduction and distribution rights. But Plaintiffs leave Spotify guessing as to what activity Plaintiffs actually believe entails “reproduction” or “distribution.” The only activity of Spotify’s that Plaintiffs identify as infringing is its “streaming” of sound recordings embodying Plaintiffs’ copyrighted musical compositions…. But “streaming” – by its very definition – cannot infringe upon either the reproduction right under 17 U.S.C. § 106(1) or the distribution right under 17 U.S.C. § 106(3). As a consequence, Plaintiffs’ allegations simply do not inform Spotify how Spotify is alleged to have violated the law.

As Spotify’s lawyers admit (as we described above), it’s clear that streaming implicates #4 and #6 of copyright’s exclusive rights — and it has licenses to cover both of those areas — but not #1 and #3:

In short, the act of streaming does not reproduce copies of sound recordings or musical compositions, and equally does not distribute copies of either sound recordings or compositions. This is not to say that streaming has no copyright consequence. Streaming does result in a public performance of both sound recordings and musical compositions. See 17 U.S.C. § 106(4) (granting copyright owner the exclusive right to “perform the copyrighted work publicly” in the case of musical works) and § 106(6) (granting copyright owner the exclusive right to “perform the copyrighted work publicly” in the case of sound recordings)…. But Plaintiffs do not allege that Spotify has violated their public performance rights, and such an allegation would be futile. Spotify has paid hundreds of millions of dollars to license the public performances of the musical compositions it streams, including those allegedly owned by Plaintiffs, through negotiated licenses administered via ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, and GMR – a group of licensing agents known collectively as “performance rights organizations” or “PROs.” In sum, Plaintiffs’ Complaint, which rests upon Spotify’s “streaming,” leaves Spotify guessing about what it has done that, in Plaintiffs’ view, constitutes a violation of Plaintiffs’ reproduction and distribution rights.

If Plaintiffs are indeed alleging an instance of copying (as opposed to streaming) that allegedly violates Plaintiffs’ reproduction and/or distribution rights, they can amend their Complaint to say so. Depending on what that allegation is, Spotify will advance a number of defenses. If Plaintiffs’ real complaint is with, for example, a particular instance of alleged temporary copying, then, among other things, Spotify may assert a defense of fair use. Spotify may also assert defenses of compulsory license, implied license, negotiated license with copyright owner or co-owner, statute of limitations, and others, depending on the nature of the specific allegations. But Spotify should not be forced to guess and aim its defenses at an unknown claim. Spotify believes that every element of its service is either fully licensed or otherwise permitted by law, and Plaintiffs’ Complaint offers no notice as to what Spotify conduct it thinks violates its copyrights or what conduct would require additional licenses.

Spotify also argues that the point of this lawsuit is really to try to convince composers to opt-out of the settlement from earlier this year, and to join in this action, which may explain why Spotify is taking an aggressive stance here. But this case, should it move forward, could become quite important. Because if a court somehow goes against earlier precedents and argues that streaming actually impacts four out of the six different exclusive rights granted under copyright law, that would be quite amazing.

As we’ve noted many times in the past, one of the problems with copyright law is that each time a new technology comes along that threatens “the old way” of doing things, rather than rethinking copyright itself, Congress tends to just duct tape on a new right that requires licensing. And that works fine until the next innovation comes along. Now, in the internet age, where things look a little like their analog predecessors, but also with other features, it’s no surprise that some copyright holders are trying to argue that ALL THE LICENSES must apply. But if you actually look closely at what Spotify does, what copyright law covers in terms of those six exclusive rights, and what previous cases have held, it does seem likely that streaming should really only implicate two of the exclusive rights.

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