A few months ago, Taylor Swift removed all her music from Spotify, arguing she (and most other artists) weren’t being compensated fairly for her work.
Now, if a new proposal for copyright law reform, Swift would be able to make everyone else’s version of her songs go away, too.
Late last week, the United States Copyright Office—the federal agency that sets U.S. copyright law—released a lengthy report proposing changes to America’s current music copyright regime, which is old and messy. It’s one of the reasons why Pharrell got paid less than $3,000 in songwriting royalties for the millions of plays the song has received on Pandora.
Most of the office’s proposals are tweaks to the relationships between the archipelagos of labels, royalty payers, publishers, and digital platforms that now comprise the online music industry.
But the one everyone else might want to pay most attention to is this: Any artist could ask you take down any cover version of any song they’ve ever written, anywhere online.
The office spells it out pretty clearly:
“Someone who produced a cover recording would need to obtain a voluntary license to post the song on an interactive streaming or download service (just as would someone who wished to offer streams or downloads of the original recording of that work)."
Right now, under the current so-called “compulsory regime,” anyone can cover anything and sell it, and the artist can’t stop them.
But under the proposed new system, a music publisher, which is in charge of collecting royalties for songwriters, could exempt entire catalogs of songs from the compulsory regime.
And it means Swift, if she were so inclined, could ask a group like Us The Duo, whose members have become Internet celebrities thanks to Swift covers (one has 9.5 million on Spotify) to remove all their music.
Eriq Gardner, a lawyer who also writes for The Hollywood Reporter and was first to catch this proposal, told us that, as extreme as it seems, every cover version of every song on the Internet could be subject to a takedown notice under this new system. Even all-time famous ones, like Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which was written by Prince.
“If Prince's publisher told YouTube that its rights didn't include cover songs, and then he saw Sinead's [O’Connor’s] "[Nothing] Compares [2 U]" on the site, he could send a takedown notice,” Gardner said in an email.
“Just a proposal at this point, but certainly quite provocative, especially when you start thinking about some great cover songs like Sinead's that could suddenly become rare online overnight.”
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.