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Can the Ministry of Sound sue Spotify – and should they?

There's a copyright in playlists, argues the dance music label, and Alex Hern agrees.

Photograph: Spotify

The Ministry of Sound is suing Spotify for letting users make and share playlists which mirror the record label's compilation CDs, the Guardian's Stuart Dredge reports:

Ministry of Sound launched proceedings in the UK High Court on Monday, and is seeking an injunction requiring Spotify to remove these playlists and to permanently block other playlists that copy its compilations. The company is also seeking damages and costs.

Chief executive Lohan Presencer claims that his company has been asking Spotify to remove the playlists – some of which include "Ministry of Sound" in their titles – since 2012.

"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," said Presencer.

The news has been reported with a faint tone of derision, but it really isn't outrageous to suggest that copyright law might cover playlists.

After all, the selection and ordering of artistic works is itself a form of art. That may not be immediately obvious in the case of a Ministry of Sound compilation, but it's far more evident when looking at something like the Oxford Book of English Verse, or the annual Best American Comics anthology.

Almost every type of human creative action has been covered by copyright law. That includes maps, mathematical tables, and, since a Supreme Court case earlier this year, newspaper headlines. Part of the reason why society has yet to fall apart in lawsuit upon lawsuit is that copyright protection isn't absolute, like patent protection or trademarks are. If I invent a widget only to discover it's already patented, then I'm out of luck: the person who got there first owns the concept. But if I write a novel only to discover that someone else used the same concept, I'm in a better position. So long as I can prove that I wasn't actively copying the story, I should be safe.

(The easiest way to do that is to show I haven't read the other book, which is part of the reason JK Rowling won't read your ideas for Harry Potter sequels. But only part.)

There's a similar application of the law behind the old concept of "trap streets", streets shown on a map which don't actually exist in reality. If my map shows the invented "Thief Road" and then yours comes out a year later also showing Thief Road, I can be pretty sure that you didn't go out and make a record of every street – instead, you just copied mine.

So the real problem for Spotify is that their users aren't particularly shy about where they got their playlists from:

Whether Ministry of Sound can sue is a different question from whether they should sue, though. Some might say that, in an age where anyone can put together a playlist of 40 popular dubstep tracks in a matter of seconds, the label's business model of doing much the same thing but with a bit of cross-fading may be one worth consigning to the dustbin of history. Going out in a blaze of lawsuits just looks a bit tacky, really.