Will Copyright Law Keep Up with the Evolution of Streaming Services?

By Kaitlyn Dobbins

Listening to music is a universal experience, and with the arrival of streaming services like Spotify it has become ever more prevalent. The ability of artists to profit off of their music rests in the protections and rights afforded through copyright law. These rights are available to those who wrote the lyrics and those who sing, and these rights apply whether the song is used on the radio, in a podcast, in the movies, or on a streaming service.[1] Both the producer and the performer have rights in the sound recordings, the actual recorded audio of a song and what people are actually listening to.[2] The most typical set-up is that songwriters will assign their copyright interests to the publisher, who will distribute a portion of those royalties to the songwriter and then will retain a portion for compensation.[3]

Ultimately, copyright law granted these artists the ability to license their songs in a way that incentivized their creativity. The more popular an artist, the more a CD is purchased, and the more money the artist makes. However, this straightforward method has become complicated with the emergence of streaming services like Spotify. Artists are not paid on a per-stream basis. Currently the royalty regime on Spotify pays artists on a stream share system.[4] Essentially, artists receive royalties based on the proportion of their songs played a month relative to the total number of streams per month.[5] As anyone who has ever been graded on a curve knows, this means your number of streams can be the same month to month but the revenue you receive may vary based on how many streams everyone else receives.

Already, it seems like the incentivization, and protections of copyright licensing afforded to artists are being lost to the business structure of streaming services as a worrying trend of artists being paid less has emerged.[6] This trend will only be exacerbated when Spotify’s new royalty structure is implemented in early 2024.[7] Spotify is now requiring tracks to receive a minimum of 1000 streams every year to receive royalties.[8] This new structure will ensure that  more popular songs gain an extra boost over less popular songs. Additionally, noise tracks such as sleep sounds and white noise must be at least two minutes long for the artist to be paid.[9] The reasoning behind this is that a song that is composed of rain noises should not make more than a popular Lizzo song. For those who don’t make the minimum amount of plays, that money will instead go to those who have more streams.[10]

There are currently many indie tracks that don’t hit that minimum streaming threshold.[11] The amount of revenue these artists may have individually gained is small. However, these artists’ revenues together account for tens of millions of dollars which will now be redistributed to larger artists.[12] When this new royalty system takes effect, smaller artists will be isolated and disincentivized from creating because their potential revenue will now be sent to bigger artists. This will, in turn, call into question whether the rights that copyright law provides are being adequately protected. Part of the policy for copyright law is incentivizing creativity. However, this creativity is no longer being incentivized as smaller artists’ revenue is disappearing.






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[1] How Songwriters, Composers, and Performers Get Paid, U.S. Copyright Office, 1 (Nov. 2020), https://www.copyright.gov/music-modernization/educational-materials/musicians-income.pdf.

[2] Id. at 2.

[3] Id. at 5.

[4] Royalties, Spotify, (last visited Dec. 1, 2023) https://support.spotify.com/us/artists/article/royalties/.

[5] Id.

[6] Susanna Korkeakivi, The Expansion of Spotify and International Copyright Law: Impact on Artists, 43 Mich. J. Int’l L. (Nov. 2021) https://www.mjilonline.org/the-expansion-of-spotify-and-international-copyright-law-impact-on-artists/ (stating artists are left unfairly undercompensated while others profit from their work).

[7] Aneesa Ahmed, ‘Putting a number on art’: musicians nervous as Spotify announces royalty changes, The Guardian, (Wed. 22 Nov. 2023), https://www.theguardian.com/music/2023/nov/22/spotify-announces-royalty-changes.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Aerial Shapiro, Spotify is reportedly making major changes to its royalty model, The Verge, (Oct. 25, 2023) https://www.theverge.com/2023/10/25/23932312/spotify-royalties-swift-deezer-universal-white-noise.

[12] Id.