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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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.