After years of complaints that the Spotify music-streaming service has cheated songwriters out of royalties, the company has agreed to pay more than $40 million to settle a class-action suit. We think this is welcome development, with potential implications for authors.
“The tech giants have been all too happy to distribute artists’ work and not worry till later, if ever, about paying the people who create it,” says James Gleick, the Authors Guild’s president. “Silicon Valley is rewriting the whole economy to shift income from creators to tech companies. This settlement looks like a small step toward correcting the imbalance.”
Spotify has claimed—as Google did when it digitized millions of books without paying copyright owners—that tracking down rightsholders was too difficult. This is an ongoing problem that the Guild is working to address. We’re encouraged, though, that the settlement could lead to the digitization of pre-1978 copyright records—making it easier to find authors and other creators—and provide a road map for rightsholders and users of their works to cooperate to solve digital-age licensing problems.
The proposed settlement, which remains subject to a judge’s approval, would settle suits originally filed separately, and later combined, by songwriters Melissa Ferrick and David Lowery. It would create a $43.45 million pool of money for the plaintiffs and other songwriters who went unpaid.
But more importantly for the sustainability of the content industries, the settlement calls for Spotify to convene a body—the Copyright Data Sharing Committee—consisting of music industry groups representing both owners and users of copyrights, all participating on a voluntary basis. The Committee will aim to find ways to better share data to facilitate licensing arrangements and to digitize pre-1978 copyright records for free use by the public. The digitization of copyright records wouldn’t just benefit songwriters: greater availability of these records will benefit creators across the content industries, as copyright owners will be much easier to find and compensate for new uses of their works.
While it may be too soon to sing the praises of such an approach—the Committee is voluntary and is not legally obligated to do anything—it certainly points a way forward to a cooperative response to today’s licensing challenges.
Perhaps this will prove to be a model for the publishing industry as well, where it’s also more difficult to track down individual authors than it is the companies that distribute their work. The Guild has been raising awareness of this problem and working on a solution for years. What we’re envisioning is a book rights registry similar to the one that was part of the Google Books settlement, a one-stop clearinghouse containing a comprehensive list of authors and their works, where those wishing to make digital uses of literary works can find all the necessary information and purchase licenses right then and there. Such a licensing platform will ultimately enable content companies to legally use literary works and authors to get paid for those uses.