Music label sues Spotify over playlists — and might have a case

September 6, 2013, 5:34 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Ministry of Sound, a British music label that issues compilation albums, is suing Spotify, claiming that the song-streamer is infringing on the label’s copyrights by allowing people to create and share playlists that mirror its albums.

Are lists of particular songs copyrightable? Possibly. U.S. copyright law recognizes compilations, in fact. The Copyright Act says that the “collection and assembling of preexisting materials or of data that are selected in such a way that the resulting work as a whole constitutes an original work of authorship.”

In other words, a particular list of songs in random or alphabetical order isn’t protected, but playlists are — or at least might be. The fact that users are assembling and sharing the playlists might change the equation in this case, as might the fact that online playlists aren’t necessarily the same as compilations issued on a physical medium. The whole issue highlights how the digitization and online distribution of media changes how we view such matters, and how intellectual-property laws written for the analogue era often don’t seem to make a lot of sense. If another label started issuing CDs mirroring the Ministry of Sound’s compilations, it seems unlikely that anyone would be surprised if Ministry of Sound sued.

Still, from a non-legal standpoint, the suit seems rather petty. Crucially, the lawsuit has nothing to do with the songs themselves, which are all legitimately licensed to Spotify, but with the order and presentation of them. Many users apparently label their playlists with the Ministry of Sound’s name. Spotify hasn’t commented on the lawsuit so far.

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Ministry of Sound CEO Lohan Presencer insisted in a column in the Guardian that “the value and creativity in our compilations are self-evident.” He also separately told the Guardian: that “a lot of research goes into creating our compilation albums, and the intellectual property involved in that. It’s not appropriate for someone to just cut and paste them.”

Presencer, then, is a bit like those guys you knew in college who thought their mix tapes were Major Artistic Statements — pretty much the equivalent of actual musicians making actual albums.

“Even if Ministry of Sound claims that ‘a lot of research’ went into compiling the list, what the public sees is just a list of nouns,” E. Michael Harrington, a music-business professor and member of the Future of Music Coalition advisory board, told Time‘s Victor Luckerson. “Compiling a list of songs you like in a specific order deserves as much copyright protection as compiling a list of things one did in Manhattan today.”

Harrington is right about the first part — to most of us, a list is just a list. But he might be dead wrong about the second part. Some lists are copyrightable.