Billion-dollar corporations usually aren’t too keen on bad press. Earlier this year, Spotify reached out to a group of Swedish researchers in an effort to quash a book in the works that details the company’s early use of pirated, non-licensed music.
Back in May, music researcher Rasmus Fleischer told Swedish financial paper Dagen Industries that during Spotify’s early years—particularly 2007 and 2008—the service used music files from the torrent site The Pirate Bay. That tidbit caught the eye of Spotify, a company whose revenue in the first half of 2017 exceeded $2 billion, according to Variety, and is constantly in talks of attempting to IPO.
Fleischer, a former member of Piratbyrån, a group that eventually founded The Pirate Bay, is part of a five-person research group that’s working on the book, which will be a chronicle of the history of Spotify, called Spotify Teardown – Inside the Black Box of Streaming Music.
After Fleischer’s interview was published, Spotify’s legal counsel Benjamin Helldén-Hegelund emailed Fleischer’s team to ask for a brief statement on their current research. Spotify never mentioned the topic of piracy, but rather took issue with researchers’ use of bots and attempts to manipulate plays on Spotify, both of which violate the company’s “Terms of Service” agreement. Fleischer, writing on his blog, never denied this fact of breaking the ToS, but claimed they were doing it because sites like Motherboard—see: “I Built a Botnet that Could Destroy Spotify with Fake Listens”—conducted similar experiments and the research team wanted to see if it held true.
Patrick Vonderau, one of the researchers behind the book, offered the following statement in an email to TrackRecord:
“We explained, again, what this project was about, repeating the information which is also available online. At the point of Helldén-Hegelund’s email, any violation of Spotify’s ToS had stopped. No research that could be interpreted as being harmful to the company’s corporate goals had been published.”
Spotify didn’t follow-up with Vonderau or Fleischer’s team and instead went directly to the Swedish Research Council, who funded the project. The streaming company wrote in a letter, which Fleischer put on his blog:
Spotify assumes that the systematic breach of conditions has not been known to the Swedish Research Council and is convinced that the Swedish Research Council is convinced that the research undertaken with the support of the Swedish Research Council in all respects meets ethical guidelines and is carried out reasonably and in accordance with applicable law.
Vonderau saw Spotify’s decision to go straight to the council, rather than address the team directly, as a potential threat to the project’s funding. He says Spotify was aware of the project since it initially received funding in 2013, and that he and the team contacted the company numerous times without issue. A Spotify spokesperson declined to comment on that matter.
The dispute came to a resolution last week, as Fleischer wrote on his blog that the Swedish Research Council ruled in favor of continuing the project despite Spotify’s objection.
Even with that good news, Vonderau expressed frustration at Spotify’s conflation of their own Terms of Service, academic research ethics, and national law. These are three separate structures that, in this case, do not inform each other and certainly wouldn’t call for legal recourse. The intimidation tactic proved to be unfruitful, as the research is continuing forward and the book still eyes a 2018 release date.
[Correction (6:38am): The original post incorrectly referred to Patrick Vonderau, as Peter, and he is a member of the research team, not an adviser.]