Spotify removes some comedians’ work from streaming service

Spotify Technology SA SPOT 0.11% has removed the works of hundreds of comedians, including John Mulaney, Jim Gaffigan and Kevin Hart, amid a new battle over royalty payments.

Tiffany Haddish, Mike Berpiglia and a host of other popular acts have joined a group of artists trying to get royalties on copyright jokes they wrote when they play on radio and digital providers like Spotify, SiriusXM, Pandora and YouTube.

The efforts of comedians are largely led by Spoken Giants. The global rights management company, founded in 2019, wants to collect royalties for basic copyrights to spoken media — essentially, lyrics for comedians — similar to how songwriters are paid for using their music and lyrics.

Spotify has removed content after it hit a dead end with Spoken Giants.

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Currently, comics are paid as artists through labels or their distributor and digital performance rights organization SoundExchange when their recordings are played on a digital service. They are not directly compensated as writers of this work – on what the Spoken Giants call their literary rights.

Complaints from comedians come as songwriters and artists look for ways to control their work and make more money from streaming and radio services.

Spoken Giants is run by Jim King, former executive director of the music performance rights organization BMI, along with Ryan Bitzer and Damon Griman, the founders of the 800-pound comedy label Gorilla Records. The company started out as comedy and joke writers, with plans to expand via podcasts, speeches, and lectures.

The organization began accessing live broadcasting, satellite and terrestrial radio services in the spring. Other radio services and companies have been talking to Spoken Giants. After some negotiations with Spotify, Spoken Giants said it received an email on Thanksgiving Eve stating that it would remove businesses represented by the organization until an agreement could be reached.

“Spotify provides artists with access to large audiences. So removing their work is detrimental to each individual creator,” King said.

Spotify said it had paid “significant amounts of money for the content in question, and would like to continue to do so,” adding that comedian posters and distributors have a stake in the conversation.

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One challenge is determining the financing of these new royalty payments. When Spotify signed deals with comedian labels and distributors, it did so on the grounds that those deals included all rights that required a payout. If the new copyright is to be paid, Spotify will either have to pay extra money to move that content, or deduct a portion of what it pays to labels and distributors for the literary right.

Word Collections, a digital rights management company launched last year, is focused on paying comedians and other spoken word artists to use their literary work across live broadcasts, radio, social media, video games and fitness services.

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The dispute highlights a changing media landscape that has been disrupted by broadcasting. BMI and ASCAP were founded at the beginning of the 20th century to collect licensing fees on behalf of composers and songwriters as radio took off. Historically, comedy has had very few listeners by comparison. Mr. King said that has changed with the availability of comedy albums on streaming platforms and SiriusXM among others having entire stations dedicated to comedy.

“There wasn’t much to collect before,” he said. “Now the world is completely different with Gaffigan or Mulaney doing billions of shows across these platforms.” “It now makes sense for the volume licensing business.”

Stand-up comedian Eddie Pipeton said he didn’t realize he wasn’t getting royalties for his written material until he signed to Spoken Giants a year ago. “Comedians not being paid for their material is mind-boggling,” he said.

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A similar issue is at play in music, where publishers are looking for a bigger chunk of the streaming pie for songwriters, while Spotify and others are proposing lower royalty rates.

Gerrit Elzinga joined the Spoken Giants when the pandemic started. His full albums were recently pulled from Spotify, and he now feels in limbo, unsure of who is to blame.

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“It’s just a problem because I really like Spotify,” he said. “People say live is a bad way to pay artists, but the way I look at it is you have to look at the long term — people listen to things and that becomes a source of revenue.”

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