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.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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