Legality of Spotify’s lyrics feature called into question

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The real-time lyrics feature that Spotify added to its desktop app this past week hasn’t impressed the U.S. karaoke industry. Joseph C Vangieri, the CEO of DigiTrax, has called it “unfair competition for us American ‘Karaoke’ companies.”

Lest you think that he has a beef with Spotify, know that his anger is directed at music publishers and not toward the music streaming service.

On Thursday, Vangieri asked the publishing industry to weigh in on the legality of Spotify’s Musixmatch-powered lyrics feature in an open letter clearly penned in angry haste. “So how is Spotify getting around getting video sync license for this feature? ” he asked, pointing out that “there are a great many songwriters who will not allow ‘karaoke’ of their songs.” He also called attention to a power-packed list of holdouts that includes such leading lights of the music world as Bon Jovi, Led Zeppelin, and Madonna.

For the uninitiated, the sync license Vangieri referred to is required when someone wishes to incorporate music into audiovisual content such as a movie, video game, or YouTube video. The term derives from the fact that the music is synchronized to visual content.

As for karaoke, it was exempt from this requirement until 1996, when a court ruled (in ABKCO Music, Inc. v. Stellar Records, Inc.) that the “contemporaneous video display of a song’s lyrics” made karaoke an “audiovisual work” as defined under the Copyright Act. This, of course, means that karaoke companies are liable for synchronization royalties. That’s only one part of the problem. With sync licenses being voluntary, karaoke companies must negotiate individually with rights holders on a song-by-song basis.

“Karaoke should be a multi-billion dollar industry in America, but because the lyric synchronized to the music is a video sync, each song must be cleared [separately],” Vangieri added.

Why this matters: According to the 1996 court ruling referred to above, a synchronization license is required even when the accompanying song lyrics are displayed against an otherwise blank screen—yes, even where there’s no bouncing ball. So Vangieri does seem to have a point in that, from a legal perspective, Spotify’s real-time display of lyrics is not much different from karaoke. And if the music streaming service is indeed “getting around” the sync license requirement, it is yet another example of like uses of music not being treated alike in America . But let’s not jump the gun as this is only one side of the story.

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