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IP/Entertainment Case Law Updates

Sitney v. Spotify USA, Inc.

District court grants Spotify’s motion for summary judgment, holding that erroneously sending Notices of Intent pursuant to U.S. Copyright Act’s compulsory licensing scheme to individual who does not, in fact, own musical compositions for which license is sought does not give rise to actionable infringement.

Online music streaming service Spotify in 2017 and 2018 mailed plaintiff Michael Sitney, aka “The Original Spiceman,” Notices of Intent for five songs pursuant to the Copyright Act’s compulsory licensing scheme. While the Notices of Intent correctly listed the recording artists and song titles, they erroneously credited Sitney as the copyright owner of songs titled “Celebration,” “Bad Girl,” “Take a Wine” and “Dangerous.” Upon receipt of the misdirected Notices of Intent, Sitney filed a copyright infringement action alleging that Spotify improperly used, streamed and downloaded his works without a proper license and without payment. In response, Spotify argued that the mere sending of Notices of Intent to an individual who is not, in fact, associated with the songs Spotify is seeking to license does not give rise to copyright infringement. The district court agreed.

Spotify attempts to identify the copyright owner of compositions it wishes to distribute, so that it can send those owners Notices of Intent to obtain compulsory licenses in accordance with the Copyright Act. That process involves Spotify obtaining digital metadata from record labels, and using that metadata to electronically search the U.S. Copyright’s database. But because the database often contains incomplete or incorrect information, as well as many similar titles, Spotify’s searches are “error-prone” and occasionally turns up names of copyright owners for similarly titled songs that Spotify does not intend to distribute. Such was the case with Sitney. Although he is the owner of copyrights for similar titles, he is not the copyright owner for the songs Spotify sought to distribute. Spotify’s search and resulting Notices of Intent erroneously identified Sitney as the owner of the compositions:  “Celebration,” “Bad Girl,” Take a Wine, and “Dangerous.” The compositions Sitney actually owns are “Grenada Day Celebration,” Bad Boy Calling Bad Girl,” “Take a Wine for Grenada,” and She’s Taking Ah Taste ‘She’s Bad and Dangerous.’”

After receiving the Notices of Intent, Sitney filed a pro se copyright infringement action, alleging that Spotify infringed his copyrights by using, streaming and downloading his works repeatedly and without proper license or payment. Spotify moved for summary judgment prior to discovery. Because Sitney’s claims were based on the theory that receipt of a Notice of Intent is sufficient to demonstrate infringement, the court did not believe any additional facts that might be elicited through discovery would aid in its decision, and therefore proceeded to decide Spotify’s motion.  

Viewing the evidence (the Notices of Intent, recordings of the songs for which Spotify sought compulsory licenses, deposit copies of Sitney’s copyrighted recordings, and an affidavit from Spotify’s Publishing Operations Department) in a light most favorable to Sitney, the court concluded that Sitney’s infringement claim failed, because there was no evidence Spotify had access to or copied the songs actually owned by Sitney. Rather, it was clear that Spotify’s Notices of Intent were meant for the owners of other songs to which Sitney does not hold copyrights. Accordingly, the court granted Spotify summary judgment.

Summary prepared by Tal Dickstein and Mary Jean Kim