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.

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.

Photograph: Spotify

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.