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Is the Cease-and-Desist against Spotify a Stunt – or a Valid Copyright Complaint?

by | Jun 25, 2024 | Copyrights, Intellectual Property

Spotify has been under fire for various reasons as of late. The UMAW has criticized their low streaming pay rates, at less than a penny per listen. Indie musicians have reacted vociferously to the change of its royalty structure, which now pays nothing to artists with less than 1,000 plays.

Now, the National Music Publishers’ Association has sent the music streaming giant a cease-and-desist letter alleging copyright infringement regarding lyrics and music. Exactly what are these infringements, and is the NMPA in the right?

The Alleged Infringements

The NMPA cited a few different copyright violations in their letter, which have to do with some of Spotify’s latest features:

  • A new music video function that displays lyrics to songs
  • The usage of lyrics in podcasts under a similar new function
  • A new “remix” feature, which allows Spotify listeners to edit songs (i.e. creating a faster or slower remix of their favorite tune)

The NMPA’s request is not unique among cease-and-desist letters: they want Spotify to either properly license lyrics to songwriters’ works or take down the lyric-infringing content. They also want Spotify to remove the remix tool entirely – doing away with any chance for the streaming app to profit from the development of that feature.

Separate Music Copyrights

You might be wondering why the NMPA is calling out Spotify for direct infringement when Spotify must have licensed the music to be able to stream it in the first place. Do they really need to license lyrics separately? It comes down to how copyright licensing works in music. 

Music copyright can be broken down into multiple pieces:

  • The written lyrics of a song
  • Music composition on paper (like notated notes on a staff or chord sheets)
  • Combined written lyrics and musics together
  • The actual sound recordings of the above

Each of these can qualify for their own copyright.

And just as a reminder, your copyright springs into existence as soon as you complete the “fixing” step. If you write lyrics to a song on a piece of paper, that creative work has a copyright. If you record a song demo, that demo is also protected by a copyright. However, you gain much more legal traction and protection if you officially register these copyrights. For instance, you can pursue federal infringement claims if you register the copyright for your song.

Which brings us back to Spotify. While the company may have licensed the right to the phonorecords of the songs on its platform in order to stream them, the NMPA’s letter seems to indicate that Spotify has not similarly licensed the musical works for these songs. In other words, they did not license lyrics. Has the streaming corporation really overlooked such a licensing must-have?

Spotify Calls This a Stunt

Not surprisingly, Spotify is arguing against the letter’s requests. However, their official statement does not specifically address each complaint – at least, not yet. Rather, Spotify highlighted the fact that they are a “licensed platform,” and that they “paid a record amount to benefit songwriters in 2023, and we are on track to exceed this amount” this year. 

They called the NMPA’s letter a “press stunt” and disqualified their claims as “false and misleading.” Spotify pointed to the Phono IV deal that the NMPA struck in 2022 with several other music organizations, suggesting that the NMPA was trying to deflect from the misgivings surrounding that deal, including its initial lack of transparency.

One wonders if perhaps Spotify’s umbrella usage of “licensed” is also meant to deflect – in their case, attention away from the question: what exactly have you licensed? And what have you not licensed that should be licensed? In the statement, the corporation simply referred rights holders to Spotify’s own process for dealing with works believed to be unlicensed. 

We shall see how Spotify reacts in the months to come – and if the NMPA will continue to pursue claims if the complaints listed in the letter are not taken seriously. 


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