Spotify has been sued for copyright infringement in a case that accuses it of failing to properly license songwriting rights in the United States. The class-action suit highlights an escalating fight over the complex system of royalties for online music.
David Lowery, the leader of the rock bands Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven and an outspoken advocate for musicians' rights in the digital age, filed the suit Monday in federal court in California. It contends that the company makes many songs available on its service without properly securing — or paying for — "mechanical rights," which date back to the era of piano rolls but are still a major kind of music copyright.
Mechanical rights refer to a copyright holder's control over the ability to reproduce a musical work. Lowery's suit contends that Spotify copies and distributes versions of his songs on its service, which streams music to about 75 million people around the world, 20 million of whom pay for monthly subscriptions. Lowery's suit says that Spotify could be liable for up to $150 million.
A spokesman for Spotify did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
As streaming has grown, the songwriting rights — which are handled separately from those of recordings — have become more valuable and their licensing increasingly contested. Songwriters like Lowery often complain of low royalty rates or of not being paid at all, while online outlets and music publishers alike say that incomplete or conflicting data often hampers proper accounting.
In October, Spotify removed from its service thousands of songs from Victory Records, an independent punk and metal label, after the label's publishing arm complained that Spotify was not paying for millions of streams. Spotify said it did not have enough data to resolve the issue, but Victory and Audiam, a company that administers its royalties, disputed this, saying they had provided data with years' worth of information. Victory's songs were quietly restored to Spotify a few weeks later, but the issue has continued to simmer.