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Spotify snaps back at $150 million class-action lawsuit

Spotify doesn’t want to hear it right now.


Molly Stier


Posted on Feb 18, 2016   Updated on May 27, 2021, 4:54 am CDT

Spotify has its sights on stopping a $150 million copyright infringement lawsuit from musician David Lowery.  

The streaming service filed two motions on Feb. 12 in a California federal court against the December suit: one requesting that it not be treated as a class-action lawsuit and the other asking that the case be dismissed due to lack of jurisdiction. If the suit is not dismissed, the streaming giant requests the judge move the case to New York, where the company’s U.S. operation is based. It’s incorporated in Delaware. 

But what does the lawsuit really mean?

The Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven frontman’s suit claims that Spotify failed to properly secure mechanical licenses—which, according to HFA, “grant the rights to reproduce and distribute copyrighted musical compositions (songs) on CDs, records, tapes, ringtones, permanent digital downloads, interactive streams and other digital configurations supporting various business models”—in the U.S., and that the company “knowingly and willingly” distributes that material “despite its

failure to identify and/or locate the owners of those compositions for payment or to

provide them with notice of Spotify’s intent to reproduce and/or distribute the Works.”

The suit’s framed to include all musicians the company allegedly slighted. 

By making it a class-action lawsuit, Lowery forces Spotify to address a collective harm allegedly inflicted on the songwriting community—rather than having a weaker case as an individual songwriter. 

“If some business cheated me $5, there’s no world in which it’ll make sense for me to sue for $5,” said Mitch Stoltz, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. 

But this kind of lawsuit can be flawed even if well-intended. 

“The issue here is that the court is determining people’s rights—you’re having your rights for you without actually having to be there,” Stoltz said.  

Spotify dubbed Lowery’s suit a “fatally flawed candidate for class treatment,” according to Pitchfork. It claimed that there was “no way to determine who qualifies as a class member” because of the “thorny and often intractable” questions of identifying the owner of the rights to produce a song and figuring out if the company “distributed those compositions without license or authorization.”

Spotify further argued that Lowery can’t prove “that common issues predominate over individual ones,” meaning a class-action lawsuit is less logical than individual judgement in a copyright case. 

“The state of the music business is that there is not a good record of who wrote what and who owns what and who can claim royalties on things,” Stoltz said. In the context of class action, Stoltz claims, “It doesn’t make sense for the court to rule on the question of issues common to all those people because each of those writers would still have to go to court.”

So for Lowery’s case to play out, he would need multiple songwriters to get in the game. 

Lowery’s lawyer claims that Spotify’s actions are typical for this kind of accusation. As Pitchfork noted

Mona Hanna, lead partner for law firm Michelman & Robinson, tells Pitchfork these motions are “a standard defense maneuver to try to avoid dealing with the merits of the complaint and trying to see if they can get a dismissal on procedural grounds.”

She described the move as no surprise, adding, “We are very confident that this is just a delay tactic and we are going to get to the merits.”

Spotify could not be reached for comment.

H/T Pitchfork | Photo via Johan Larsson/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Feb 18, 2016, 9:14 pm CST