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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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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