ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The music streaming service Spotify is popular among music lovers but controversial in the recording industry. It made headlines when stars like Taylor Swift and Adele accused it of under-paying artists. Spotify denies that. Well, now the company is facing a class-action lawsuit for copyright infringement. It's been filed on behalf of thousands of songwriters. As NPR's Laura Sydell reports, the suit says Spotify never asked permission to use their music.
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Last year, David Lowery and his band Cracker put out an album that included this song, "King of Bakersfield."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KING OF BAKERSFIELD")
DAVID LOWERY: (Singing) Life is good. They call me the king of Bakersfield.
SYDELL: Lowery registered the song with the U.S. Copyright Office in Washington, D.C. Despite over 22,000 plays on Spotify, he says he never saw any money, and Spotify put up his song without asking him.
LOWERY: This is classic Silicon Valley, which is like, let's just do it and let's try to figure out the problems later.
SYDELL: The problem, says Lowery, is much bigger than just him. He is the name plaintiff in a class-action suit being brought by attorney Sanford Michelman. The suit is specifically about the rights of songwriters who don't necessarily perform the song but who do have the right to get paid when someone makes or distributes copies of their work. Michelman believes there are thousands of songwriters who were never asked for permission to use their music on Spotify.
SANFORD MICHELMAN: They should have reached out to the various artists and said, we want to enter and engage into a license with you and enter into a royalty agreement, just like you would in any other situation.
SYDELL: Michelman says Spotify may owe tens of millions of dollars, not just in unpaid royalties but for copyright infringement, which can run as high as $150,000 per violation. He filed the class-action suit yesterday in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. In a statement, Spotify claims it's tried to find rights holders but, quote, "the data necessary to confirm the appropriate rights holders is often missing, wrong or incomplete." Spotify says it has set aside a fund to pay songwriters when they are identified. But when it comes to at least one song named in the suit, "King of Bakersfield," it doesn't seem hard.
And how long did it take you to find it?
JAMES BERGER: Oh (laughter), 10 seconds.
SYDELL: This is James Berger, an independent copyright attorney who did a quick search of the U.S. Copyright Office database and found "King of Bakersfield" and the name of the songwriter. He doesn't understand why Spotify, which was valued at over $8 billion this past summer, didn't do this.
BERGER: I would hire a team of paralegals, which isn't that expensive. Sorry paralegals, you're a valuable help in our field. But get a team of paralegals. They're doing nothing but looking up these songs.
SYDELL: Berger says there are probably songwriters who are harder to find because they didn't register their music. But a spokesperson for the U.S. Copyright Office says Spotify still has to demonstrate it made the effort to find the writer. While this lawsuit only names Spotify, Jeff Price, the CEO and founder of a company called Audium, which tracks publishing rights, says he's seen this same problem at various services, including Apple, Google and Tidal.
JEFF PRICE: This suit brings to the foreground an endemic problem that has existed since the launch of interactive streaming music services.
SYDELL: This particular suit doesn't necessarily include the major song publishers. For example, Sony has an agreement with Spotify. But Price believes the suit may open a can of worms that will involve the entire industry. Laura Sydell, NPR News.