Guest post by Chris Castle
The Uniform Commercial Code defines “good faith” as “honesty in fact and the observance of reasonable commercial standards of fair dealing.”
Spotify was sued by Eight Mile Style and Martin Affiliated, two publishers that control rights in some of the early Eminem repertoire, including Lose Yourself. Remember that earlier this year, Spotify announced with great fanfare that Lose Yourself was streamed over 1 billion times on the platform. That’s just one measurement of Eminem’s dominance on Spotify. Turns out that Spotify had failed to license a good chunk of Eminem’s catalog.
The publishers eventually joined the Harry Fox Agency to the lawsuit as participating in the situation, adding claims of vicarious and contributory copyright infringement against the long-time publishing administrator to the industry. In fact, the Harry Fox Agency gave some people the impression that when it came to Section 115 of the Copyright Act, HFA thought they were the government. What ever is this venerable organization doing getting sued for copyright infringement instead of leading the charge against the infringer?
At one point a few years ago, quite a few years ago now, HFA decided to jump up on top of the wall. They started working for tech companies like Spotify and also administering publishing rights. That’s right–both sides. What could possibly go wrong?
Let me illustrate with an anecdote (one that does not involve HFA, or MRI for that matter). A highly ethical licensing administrator interviewed for a job handling music licensing for a big tech company. After several rounds of interviews, the administrator was told they weren’t getting the job. Asking for a reason, the tech company told the administrator that the company thought the administrator were likely going to flag and at least try to fix any problems they found in the tech company’s reporting. The administrator didn’t find this remarkable as this was the honest thing to do. The company said, we don’t want honesty when it’s not in our favor. The company hired someone else because they did not want “honesty in fact”.
There are serious allegations against the Harry Fox Agency in the Eight Mile Case. Remember, this is a defense motion to dismiss, so the plaintiff largely gets the benefit of the doubt in their favor. You may ask yourself what possible motivation could Spotify have for engaging in such risky behavior. In her order denying in part and granting in part HFA’s motion to dismiss, Judge Trauger puts her finger right on the most plausible explanation:
[I]t is undisputed that [Eminem, aka Marshall] Mathers is an artist who has enjoyed extraordinary commercial success and has built a large, dedicated fanbase, such that his omission from a major streaming platform might discourage some meaningful number of potential users from subscribing.
In other words, they did it for the subscribers, they did it for the growth and they did it for the money.
While Eight Mile alleged both vicarious and contributory infringement, Judge Trauger dismissed the claim for vicarious infringement on technical grounds (with leave to amend). Not so with the claim for contributory infringement, however:
HFA objects that it was under no obligation to police Spotify’s in-house decisions regarding infringement. Whether that is true or not, the plaintiffs have not merely alleged that HFA failed to affirmatively police Spotify’s conduct; they have alleged both that HFA knew and, through the ordinary fulfillment of its duties, should have known that the infringement was occurring and that HFA was helping to conceal it.…There is little doubt, moreover, that those allegations of knowledge were pleaded sufficiently. Even when a claim is governed by the heightened pleading requirements of Rule 9(b), “[m]alice, intent, knowledge, and other conditions of a person’s mind may be alleged generally.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 9(b). The Supreme Court, moreover, has recognized a party’s “aiming to satisfy a known source of demand for copyright infringement” as evidence of an improper purpose in the contributory infringement analysis. Grokster, 545 U.S. at 939. That circumstantial evidence is only heightened when the defendant, knowing of the capacity for infringement, fails to take steps to avoid it. See id. (citing Groskter’s lack of “attempt[s] to develop filtering tools or other mechanisms to diminish the infringing activity using their software”).
The plaintiffs have plausibly alleged that HFA became aware of Spotify’s licensing predicament and offered services that directly filled its need to maintain an illusion of lawfulness while continuing to infringe.
If these allegations turn out to be proven true, songwriters (and the Copyright Office for that matter) may well ask themselves if there are implications for HFA’s continued role as a vendor for The MLC, if not why they were selected in the first place.