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Spotify Nukes Thousands of Comedy Tracks in Battle over Royalty Rights

The platform has pulled tracks by Robin Williams, Mike Birbiglia, John Mulaney, and more

spotify comedy royalties literary robin williams john mulaney mike birbiglia
Robin Williams (photo by Eva Rinaldi), John Mulaney (NBC), and Mike Birbiglia (Heather Kaplan)

    On Wednesday, November 25th, after business hours closed and Americans looked forward to a long Thanksgiving weekend, Spotify suddenly took down thousands of comedy tracks by Robin Williams, John Mulaney, Mike Birbiglia, Jeff Foxworthy, and more. The move appears to be an aggressive response to new organizations trying to collect literary royalties on behalf of comedians.

    On November 27th, Birbiglia tweeted, “Random question: Does anyone know why some of the Comedy Central albums got taken off Spotify? 3 of mine are gone, some of Mulaney’s, one of Attell’s, but then some are still there— like Hedberg. Anyone know about any rights things happening behind the scenes with comedy albums?”

    Earlier this year, Birbiglia signed with Spoken Giants, a rights administration company formed in 2019 to represent the owners and creators of spoken word copyrights. Spoken Giants was founded by former BMI executive Jim King alongside Ryan Bitzer and Damion Greiman, the heads of the comedy label 800 Pound Gorilla Records. It’s not the only such company — Word Collections formed in 2020, with a similar mission — but it seems to have been one of the main targets of Spotify’s comedy purge.

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    In the second quarter of this year, Spoken Giants reached out to streamers and radio platforms with introductory letters and term sheets, indicating a desire to begin negotiating rates for spoken word content. They were specifically looking at comedians’ literary rights, which would seem to be indicated by US copyright law, but which have gone unclaimed.

    Recorded performances have two separate copyrights: one for the recording itself, and one for the written material. Songwriters and musical performers have collected both for years, with organizations like ASCAP and BMI emerging alongside radio to track the royalties of their songwriting members. But currently, comedians only collect royalties for their recordings.

    “We started negotiations with Spotify and many other platforms,” Spoken Giants CEO Jim King told Consequence, “to go to them and say, ‘This is something that hasn’t been done before, but is owed to the copyright owners.’ You even say it — your stock holder filings say, ‘We owe on spoken word,’ but nobody has been there to collect those royalties.”

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    It’s an attractive message, and Spoken Giants has signed some of the biggest names in comedy, including, Birbiglia, Lewis Black, the Don Rickles estate, the Bob Hope estate, Desilu (Lucille Ball/Desi Arnaz estates), Gabriel Iglesias, Larry the Cable Guy, Tiffany Haddish, Jeff Foxworthy, Patton Oswalt, the Bob Newhart estate, Roy Wood Jr., Christopher Titus, Lisa Lampanelli, and more.

    While other platforms have been more open to negotiating, “Spotify has taken an aggressive approach to this.” King said that their tactics included “the threat of taking down comedians if that’s what it comes to… and instead of getting beyond that point, on Thanksgiving Eve… they sent us an email saying, ‘We’re taking down your comedians.'”

    Spoken Giants declined to share the email, citing a non-disclosure agreement with Spotify. But they did point to an anonymous email published by Sean L. McCarthy in his Substack newsletter, which read,

    We regret to inform you that Spotify will be removing tracks from the Spoken Giants catalog worldwide.

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    While we are taking this action out of abundance of caution given continued uncertainty regarding the licensing status of these works, our discussions with Spoken Giants continue and we hope the issue can be resolved soon.

    Thank you for your cooperation.

    Best Regards,

    Spotify Content Protection

    Artists who are not signed to Spoken Giants were targeted, too. Via The Laugh Button, Kevin Hart, John Mulaney, and the Robin Williams estate have all had materials removed from Spotify. It’s unclear why these comedians were targeted, and whether they were also trying to secure their literary rights. In a letter to The Laugh Button, Spotify only mentioned Spoken Giants, writing,

    “Spotify has paid significant amounts of money for the content in question, and would love to continue to do so. However, given that Spoken Giants is disputing what rights various licensors have, it’s imperative that the labels that distribute this content, Spotify and Spoken Giants come together to resolve this issue to ensure this content remains available to fans around the globe.”

    According to King, Spoken Giants has reached out to Spotify but has not heard back. Some comedians have chimed in, and you can check out their responses below.

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    Spotify continues to fight against paying royalties across all revenue streams, including music. In October, the streamer proposed paying even lower royalty rates to songwriters.

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