The latest darling of the digerati is music service Turntable.fm. The site has grown to nearly 400,000 monthly active users (despite still being invite-only) and has raised $7.5 million from investors since it launched just two months ago. Along with countless rave reviews in the blogosphere, it has been covered by Billboard, labelled “the cool kids’ Pandora” by CNN, and called “amazing” by the New York Times.
And it is pretty cool, as I’ve discovered after playing around with it in the last couple weeks. It’s great for sharing music — in the real sense of the word, not in the false “file-sharing” sense — with friends and strangers, discovering new music, or simply as a “traditional” internet radio station that you listen to at work or home.
But is it legal? Several people have already asked the question. As with most questions involving copyright, the answer is not easy, as these answers are typically very fact-specific and depend on interpreting laws that lack bright-line distinctions. The answer isn’t made easier by the fact that the team behind Turntable.fm has remained tight-lipped for the time being.
For those unfamiliar with the site, Billboard’s article provides a good rundown of how it works.
Whether Turntable.fm is legal depends on whether it is licensed to exercise any of the exclusive rights of any copyrighted content. Recorded music consists of two separate copyrights: a copyright for the underlying musical composition and a copyright for the particular sound recording of the song. Each of these copyrights consist of individual rights — notably, the right to reproduce, the right to distribute, and the right to publicly perform a work.
Streaming a song implicates the public performance right of a musical composition.1 Performance Rights Organizations (PROs) — in the US, these include ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC — administer the licensing of public performance rights for nearly all musical compositions — the notable exception being a portion of the catalog of EMI, which recently began administering the public performance rights for “New Media” services itself.
In the past couple weeks, Turntable.fm has inked deals with both ASCAP and BMI. That leaves agreements with SESAC and EMI Publishing for the site to be fully covered, though presumably those are in the works or already on the way based on the site’s efforts to become licensed under the other PROs.
Performance rights for sound recordings are a bit trickier. When sound recordings were first given copyright protection, that protection did not include a right to public performance. However, in 1995, Congress added a narrow performance right to sound recordings via a digital audio transmission.2 It also included provisions for statutory licensing for certain webcasters, provisions that were amended by the DMCA in 1998.
Currently, noninteractive services are eligible for statutory licensing; interactive services — think on-demand streaming services like Spotify — must negotiate directly with copyright owners for public performance licenses.3
The Copyright Act defines an “interactive service” as:
one that enables a member of the public to receive a transmission of a program specially created for the recipient, or on request, a transmission of a particular sound recording, whether or not as part of a program, which is selected by or on behalf of the recipient. The ability of individuals to request that particular sound recordings be performed for reception by the public at large, or in the case of a subscription service, by all subscribers of the service, does not make a service interactive, if the programming on each channel of the service does not substantially consist of sound recordings that are performed within 1 hour of the request or at a time designated by either the transmitting entity or the individual making such request. If an entity offers both interactive and noninteractive services (either concurrently or at different times), the noninteractive component shall not be treated as part of an interactive service.4
Only one case has been faced with the issue of distinguishing between interactive and noninteractive services. In Arista Records v. Launch Media, the Second Circuit considered whether the webcasting service LAUNCHcast was “interactive” within the meaning of the statute. LAUNCHcast allows users to create custom stations by selecting a genre, artist, or song; the service than generated a custom playlist for the user (I’ve never used LAUNCHcast, but from the description, the service sounds like it operates similarly to Pandora). The plaintiffs argued that this type of service is clearly interactive since the stations are “specially created for the recipient.”
The Second Circuit disagreed with this broad reading of the statute’s language. It turned to Congress’s intent for more clarification, and after a thorough examination of the legislative history, said:
In sum, from the SRA to the DMCA, Congress enacted copyright legislation directed at preventing the diminution in record sales through outright piracy of music or new digital media that offered listeners the ability to select music in such a way that they would forego purchasing records.
Armed with a narrower reading of the statute, the court ultimately concluded that LAUNCHcast was not an “interactive” service “because the webcasting service does not provide sufficient control to users such that playlists are so predictable that users will choose to listen to the webcast in lieu of purchasing music, thereby—in the aggregate—diminishing record sales.”
It appears that Turntable.fm is operating as a noninteractive service. The music on its system is provided through MediaNet, which also assists with licensing through SoundExchange, the organization in charge with administering statutory licensing of digital performance rights for sound recordings.
For a non-DJing listener, the service does appear to be noninteractive in the legal sense. Aside from selecting a room to listen in, a non-DJ listener has no control over the selection of music. The service doesn’t announce the name of upcoming tracks, nor does it allow tracks to be downloaded. It also limits the number of times tracks from the same artist or album can be played within a certain time frame.
But the service may be considered interactive for those users who are DJ-ing, since they do specify the selection of songs to be played. A service can have both noninteractive and interactive components; for Turntable.fm, that may mean that the statutory license covers the streams made to non-DJ listeners while the streams made to DJ-ing users need to be licensed directly with the sound recording copyright owners.
There is evidence that Turntable.fm is working on complying with the law in this area, either by negotiating such a license or making sure the service is noninteractive under the statute for DJ-ing users. For example, when a user is the only one in a room DJ-ing, the song is only streamed to room visitors while the DJ can only hear a preview. This prohibits someone from using the service as a purely on-demand streaming service like Spotify.
Is that enough? Unfortunately for Turntable.fm, there is no clear answer to that question. The line that divides interactive from noninteractive services is unclear, and I think arguments could be made on either side. For example, this passage from a DMCA conference report points out certain features that would separate an interactive service from a noninteractive one:
[A] service would be interactive if it allowed a small number of individuals to request that sound recordings be performed in a program specially created for that group and not available to any individuals outside of that group. In contrast, a service would not be interactive if it merely transmitted to a large number of recipients of the service’s transmissions a program consisting of sound recordings requested by a small number of those listeners.5
Turntable.fm seems to fit more in the latter category than the former — although it does allow users to create “private” rooms. A “private” room might be considered specially created for a small group of people and not available to individuals outside that group — or it might not, because setting a room as “private” doesn’t bar anyone from joining the room, it just prevents that room from being included in the list of rooms that users see on the site; anyone can join the room if they know the link to it.
Bottom line, the interactive/noninteractive distinction is one that can only be fully determined in court. In 2000, the Digital Media Association (DiMA) petitioned the Copyright Office to clarify this distinction via regulation, but the Copyright Office declined. In its response to the petition, the Office said, “Such a determination must be made on a case-by-case basis after the development of a full evidentiary record in accordance with the standards and precepts already set forth in the statute,” and concluded, “In light of the rapidly changing business models emerging in today’s digital marketplace, no rule can accurately draw the line demarcating the limits between an interactive service and a noninteractive service.”
Reproduction and Distribution
Turntable.fm’s catalog of over 11 million songs is provided through MediaNet, and any reproduction or distribution of that content is covered by its agreement with the service. As per that agreement, Turntable.fm doesn’t allow users to download any of the songs — and in fact appears to be taking affirmative steps to ensure that continues to be true.
The site also allows users to upload songs to the service. The DMCA shields service providers from any infringement that arises by reason of storage at the direction of a user.6 If a user uploads someone else’s song without permission, Turntable.fm must remove it if it has knowledge that it is infringing or receives a takedown notice from the copyright owner.
This feature doesn’t expose Turntable.fm to much risk of liability. Any song that is uploaded isn’t reproduced or distributed further, since the site doesn’t allow downloading. And any public performance of the composition or recording is likely already covered by the blanket licenses the site has in place.
A few weeks ago, Turntable.fm blocked use of its site from non-US users. Currently, the licenses it does have in place probably extend only to the US. These licenses almost fully cover the site’s use of copyrighted content — Turntable.fm may need to negotiate directly with sound recording owners for public performances received by DJing users depending on whether it is considered an interactive webcaster for these users.
What’s encouraging is that the site owners appear to be working on building a legally-compliant music service from the start. Often, copyright critics try to build a false wedge between content and technology companies. But Turntable.fm shows that it’s possible for a start-up to build an exciting and innovative service that respects copyright. Such services are exciting because they represent sustainable business models that benefit everyone — creators, entrepreneurs, and consumers.