Are playlists subject to copyright laws?

Ministry of Sound are suing Spotify for copyright infringement. You can read the details here but the long and short of it is that some Spotify users are creating playlists using the same tracklisting and titles as existing MoS albums. MoS are objecting to this and have asked Spotify to remove the playlists but Spotify insist they aren't responsible for their users content and to date haven't taken them down.

As the founder of the biggest Spotify playlist resource online, I'll be following this case with interest. In the past we've been contacted by MoS to take down exactly these kind of playlists described in the law suit. In fact as well as duplicating the tracks from a compilation album into a playlist we've had users go one step further and use the official album artwork as playlist artwork - something you can't do within Spotify, but you can on As we're only a small company with no budget for legal expenses we've always complied with MoS and removed any playlists they ask us to. Quite simply we don't have the money or the will to fight them in court.

Many people including myself have compared Now That's What I Call Music with MoS. Both have a booming business curating compilation albums, the difference is that Now Music is a joint venture between 2 major record labels, Universal and Sony. Who are not only shareholders in Spotify but also own the rights to the majority of tracks on Now Music albums, so they earn money from streams of Now Music albums. Now Music have even gone so far as to compile playlists of all of their albums and have been publishing them on our site since 2011. They also have a popular Spotify app, it's fair to say they have embraced the streaming ecosystem.

On the other hand, MoS licence most of the tracks for their compilation albums from other labels. So if they were to publish these compilations on Spotify then MoS wouldn't benefit from the streams financially.

The whole idea that a playlist can be subject to copyright laws is fascinating to me. For example, one of our most popular playlists is the Radio 1 Weekly Playlist that has over 157,000 followers on Spotify. Each week the user simply looks up the Radio 1 playlist, which is widely available online and pops the tracks into the playlist. We also have similar playlists for pretty much all BBC radio stations as well as specific playlists from popular shows like Jo Wiley and Zane Lowe. Are these subject to copyright? I've actually spoken to a legal counsel about the BBC playlists and the general opinion is that the BBC wouldn't take any legal action as it's "just not what they do."

But what about music from TV shows or movies? Our soundtracks section is immensely popular and playlists like this one from HBO's Girls in particular is a crowd pleaser. How about the music from video games? We know that game studios like Rockstar Games invest a ton of money in licensing music and even original content for their games such as the forthcoming GTA V which as you can guessed already has a playlist. Then there's Rolling Stone who often publish "top 100" lists in their magazine, these are ripe for playlisting and we often receive multiple playlists of the same lists. Can Rolling Stone serve us a takedown notice?

As well as user generated content we also curate and publish our own playlists on the site, some of which you can see scattered amongst this article. It takes a lot of time and thought to put together something like 100 Amazing Covers and The World's Most Perfect Pop Songs, would I be annoyed if somebody copied them? Yes. Would I sue? No. The reason I wouldn't sue is because although anybody can replicate a playlist we have the brand, the momentum and the audience. I wouldn't really care if a kid in a bedroom somewhere in the world decided to copy and publish my playlist. 

Which is exactly what Ministry of Sound should be thinking.

Instead of taking Spotify to court and objecting about users creating MoS playlists if I were them I'd partner with Spotify, build a MoS app, replicate every MoS album as a playlist and dominate curated playlists as well as they dominate compilation albums. Sure they wouldn't receive cash on streams of songs which they licence but they will on their own artists. It's not as if their artists aren't popular either with Example, Wretch 32 and DJ Fresh among the biggest. I'm sure they could earn sizeable revenue from their own artist streams.

Aside from the revenue generated from streams, MoS could also earn from ticket and merchandise sales from a Spotify app, in the same way that the Songkick and Bluenote apps link out to ticket/merchandise sales. There are also opportunities to work with Spotify and brands to create branded environments within Spotify apps which could also pay well. It really does help to think about other revenue opportunities and not just cash generated from streams.

Not only that but by launching a branded MoS app and having a presence in Spotify means that MoS can get their brand out to millions of music fans around the world. For the relatively small cost of building an app (and we can help with that btw) and of course some investment in time they could reach a whole new audience at a much cheaper cost than traditional marketing via TV, print or radio.

That's what I would do if I were MoS. The whole idea of MoS suing Spotify because it's users are going to the effort of curating playlists based on their albums reminds of the days when the record labels would try to sue people who illegally downloaded music MP3's for ridiculous amounts of money. The very fact that users want to have MoS content on Spotify but have to create their own, because it's not there is a huge compliment. MoS need to embrace this and work with their audience, not against them. This could quite easily turn into a huge PR disaster for MoS if they don't reverse this crazy decision soon.

One last thought...

If you don't embrace new technologies and markets such as streaming then there will always be somebody else that will. I'm not saying that playlisting and curation is easy but neither is it brain surgery. We have some excellent compilation series such as the Strictly BASS series that now consists of 51 playlists and a very loyal following. Then there's the excellent Soundtrack To... playlist series that even has record labels contacting us asking if we can put them in touch with the original curator so they can pitch their priority tracks to him for inclusion in the next playlist.

What I'm listening to right now: Wretch 32 - Doing OK (well I would love to but seeing as Wretch 32 is signed to MoS and not available on Spotify I'll just make do with this lovely tribute version instead.

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12 Responses to Are playlists subject to copyright laws?

  1. amanda says:

    I’ve noticed MOS singles don’t do as well in the charts as dance tracks on other labels, they may spend a couple of weeks in the top 10 or so but that’s about it. The recent Example hits album released by MOS only spend 2 weeks in the top 40

    MOS should reconsider putting music back on streaming services

  2. syknyk says:

    As curator of the Strictly Bass series I found my playlist making feet by mimicking already established compilations. The Now series was one until they showed up and there was no longer a need for me to make them anymore.
    With the MOS compilations I used to make I had to replace half the tracks due to their refusal to put their own content on Spotify.

    I would welcome Ministry Of Sound. However if not I will continue to showcase the other artists and labels that understand how important stresming services are to preventing REAL piracy.

  3. Simon says:

    Song titles aren’t subject to copyright and I don’t believe you can copyright a playlist either.

    What about a DJ who plays a set at an event, does it become copyright the songs and the order they were played? That would be absurd just as a spotify playlist being subject to copyright.

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  5. “The very fact that users want to have MoS content on Spotify but have to create their own, because it’s not there is a huge compliment”…
    …said exactly how it is. It ‘should’ be a compliment, but they seem to be oblivious to that fact. Madness!

    I do a compilation of track suggestions on my website, I’d be happy if it turned out that anyone copied such and naming it after the site. It’s the ultimate thumbs up that you’re doing some that others are appreciating and if it’s not available then where’s the harm?

    Perhaps sour grapes that Spotify aren’t paying them to promote their compilation albums?

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  7. Diane says:

    MOS are definitely missing the point and will have to accept that this is the future of music – like it or not.

  8. As a mastering engineer I personally wouldn’t say that a playlist has any strong defend-able IP behind it. But the order of tracks can make a big difference to how an album feels and what thoughts it inspires, so definately not void of value (hence existence!).

    If tracks are made to blend together though, and the track gaps are set just right, and the entire album has been tweaked in it’s sound so that it has a sound of its own, as a complete whole. Then for me, it stops becoming a sum of it’s parts, but has become a whole new creation.

    So often when I’m mastering an album the tracks are just ‘songs’ in an order, but once put together as a whole it definitely gains a new lease of life and becomes a higher thing an album. So to claim that the playlist should be taken down because they are the same and in the same order, eeer don’t think so. But to claim that ‘you ripped our CD (or equivalent) and have given it away for free’ – that’s illegal. and should be taken down. the artist and producers must be paid for their work, only if they are can we have music to enjoy.

    my 2p

  9. Jack Norell says:

    I wouldn’t think a playlist is subject to copyright: It’s a small dataset that’s released to the public.

    In fact, I’d liken a CD track listing to a table of contents or ingredients list (for a recipe or product). They’re not an artistic product at all. So copying these… not an issue.

    Naturally, descriptions and bios etc are subject to copyright.

    Ministry of Sound is being ridiculous and clearly alienating their biggest fans with this farce.

  10. Chris Neale says:

    “Databases may receive copyright protection for the selection and arrangement of the contents.”

    Sounds a lot like a playlist.

  11. jez says:

    I guess it means only rights holders will be curating these types of albums in the future. MoS lose, music fans lose. Creative destruction at work.

    I thought about publishing Rough Trades album of the month list on my blog but decided against it. Copyright or no, it just felt rude to rip it off. We all have our own standards I guess…

  12. rick says:

    Can anyone from M.O.S. confirm that they have painstakingly searched through Spotify, Pandora, MOG, Deezer and any other community playlist enabled services to check that no-one has ever put a playlist together that mirrors the one they want to release, to check that M.O.S. themselves arnt impinging on someones intellectual property?

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