Universal Music, Sony Music, EMI and others filed a complaint at a federal court in Nashville, Tennessee, accusing Twitter’s parent company X Corp of “breeding” mass copyright infringement. The company allegedly fails to respond properly to takedown notices and lacks a proper termination policy.
As a result, Twitter is reportedly rife with music piracy. This activity generates many millions of views which are monetized by the social media platform, while rightsholders are not compensated.
“Twitter fuels its business with countless infringing copies of musical compositions, violating Publishers’ and others’ exclusive rights under copyright law,” the complaint reads.
“While numerous Twitter competitors recognize the need for proper licenses and agreements for the use of musical compositions on their platforms, Twitter does not, and instead breeds massive copyright infringement that harms music creators.”
The music companies say that while many online platforms have agreed to licensing deals, Twitter has shown little interest in compensating musicians. This hasn’t changed since Elon Musk took over. Instead, the attitude towards rightsholders seems to have worsened.
The lawsuit specifically mentions a tweet from Musk which described the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) as a “plague on humanity.”
“This statement and others like it exert pressure on Twitter employees, including those in its trust and safety team, on issues relating to copyright and infringement,” the music companies note.
The same DMCA provides the ammunition for this multi-million dollar lawsuit. With a provisional list of over 1,600 musical works, the potential damages run to hundreds of millions of dollars.
‘Music Piracy Fuels Revenue’
Twitter’s revenue partly relies on advertising which, in turn, is boosted by additional views. According to the music companies, these advertisements are also clearly visible around infringing content.
The complaint lists several examples of infringing tweets with advertisements and promoted users surrounding them, each with many thousands of views.
In many cases, users upload infringing music videos to the platform. These tend to be quite popular and engaging, but unlike other platforms such as TikTok, Facebook and YouTube, rightsholders are not compensated.
According to the music companies, these tweets are the kind of quintessential copyright infringement explicitly prohibited by U.S. copyright law. They are quite popular, however, and can collect hundreds of thousands of views, as is the case with the Rihanna tweet below.
“The tweet, which simply states, ’15 years ago, rihanna [sic] released ‘umbrella’ [sic]’, contains over two minutes of the official music video for Rihanna’s performance of ‘Umbrella.’ The infringing tweet garnered over 221,000 views and nearly 15k ‘likes’,” the music companies write.
These numbers don’t mean that the platform itself is doing anything wrong. Under the DMCA, which Musk referred to as a plague, services such as Twitter are shielded from liability under certain conditions. But this safe harbor doesn’t apply here, the music companies suggest.
DMCA Takedowns & Repeat Infringers
The complaint alleges that Twitter’s response to DMCA takedown notices is sub-par. Since December 2021, the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA) has sent over 300,000 formal infringement notices, many of which didn’t lead to immediate removals.
“Despite claiming to take down tweets in response to an infringement notice within hours or minutes, Twitter routinely waits much longer before acting, if it acts at all.”
“Twitter’s incentive not to act expeditiously is clear. Twitter wants to maximize the benefit it receives from the infringing content on its platform before the tweet is deleted. As a general proposition, the value to Twitter of a tweet decreases over time.”
Under the DMCA, online platforms are required to implement a repeat infringer policy that allows for the termination of accounts that persistently share copyrighted content without permission.
The music companies note that Twitter used to have the term “terminate” in its copyright policy but in 2018 that wording was changed to “suspend.” These suspensions are not always permanent, the labels say.
“Even on the rare occasions where Twitter suspends an account used to infringe repeatedly, Twitter often reactivates that account after a short period of time. Twitter has suspended and reactivated certain accounts multiple times,” the complaint reads.
When accounts come back online, Twitter is more lenient to accounts with larger follower counts according to the music companies. The suggestion is that these accounts are more valuable to Twitter’s business model.
Hundreds of Millions
Based on these and other arguments, the complaint holds Twitter liable for both direct and contributory copyright infringement. Twitter’s actions cause substantial irreparable harm and the rightsholders seek compensation in return.
The complaint comes with a provisional list of over 1,600 musical works. For each of these, the rightsholders demand the maximum statutory damages of $150,000 per work, which means that there is roughly a quarter of a billion dollars at stake.
Interestingly, this isn’t the first lawsuit of this size against Twitter. Earlier this year, celebrity photo agency Backgrid filed a similar case against Twitter, demanding $229 million in damages.
A copy of the music publishers’ complaint against Twitter, filed at the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee in Nashville is available here (pdf)