Business

Twitter Faces the Music as Licensing Tensions Heat Up

Dan Woodger

Rights holders want the online platform to license content. But Twitter uses the DMCA — and it wants to charge to expedite takedowns.

Over the past few years, as streaming runs out of room to grow, labels and publishers have been ramping up their efforts to license technology companies that use their content: Think Facebook, TikTok and now Twitch and Twitter.

These efforts often involve taking services that operate under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act — the 1998 law that offers online platforms limited "safe harbor" for users' copyright infringement as long as they respond to takedown notices — and bringing them to the negotiating table with talk of business benefits, threats of legal action or some mix of the two. It's a game that's almost as old as online music itself.

But Twitter won't play, multiple sources close to the situation tell Billboard. So far, the company — which lets users post videos of up to two minutes and 20 seconds, and doesn't actively scan for infringing content — has been unwilling to negotiate to license music. And although Twitter operates under the DMCA, the company often takes "three to five days" to remove content after receiving a takedown notice, according to a rights-holder source. (The DMCA says sites must act "expeditiously.") In a December Senate Subcommittee on Intellectual Property hearing on how voluntary agreements can reduce piracy, RIAA chairman and CEO Mitch Glazier testified that when the music industry organization asked Twitter for access to its API (application programming interface) to more efficiently search for infringing content, the company replied that it would cost $100,000 a year.

Glazier testified that over the past two years, music rights holders have sent Twitter notices of more than 3 million infringements of over 20,000 recordings. (Twitter's transparency report does not show data for 2020 yet, but the company says it received 284,231 DMCA takedown requests on Twitter and its video service Periscope in 2019.) And "unlike Facebook and unlike YouTube," Glazier testified, "they have done nothing to try to at least build tools or help prevent what is by its nature a viral system where piracy can spread literally in microseconds."

Twitter used to value its relationships with the music business more. The company launched Twitter #Music, an ill-fated music discovery app on Good Morning America in 2013 — a year in which music was the most popular topic discussed on Twitter — a clear signal of the importance music had to the growing social network. In 2014, the company partnered with Lyor Cohen's 300 Entertainment to use Twitter's data to find the next big artists. Publicly it still maintains a cozy relationship with the music industry, with musicians controlling six of the 10 most popular accounts. But behind the scenes, the tone has changed.

Twitter didn't comment for this story — or send an executive to the hearing, much to the disappointment of Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), who said "Twitter simply does not take copyright piracy seriously." But it did hire a lobbying firm to help it navigate the issue. And while Twitter recently implemented a process to speed up important takedowns, that still takes from "four hours to 20 hours," says the rightsholder source. On YouTube and Facebook, Content ID and Rights Manager proactively scan for infringement.

Twitter does not need to sign licensing agreements with music industry rights holders to legally operate its platform, but by not doing so it fully relies on the Safe Harbor protection of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which effectively protects internet platforms from being sued for copyrighted content uploaded by users to their networks in certain circumstances. Rights holders then have to search Twitter for infringing content and file takedowns under the DMCA to remove their copyrighted material. Twitter, which pulls in advertisement revenue from promoted tweets and from tweets with video that feature pre-roll ads, does not contribute any revenue to the music industry from tweets featuring music on its platform, a fact that will not change unless it signs licensing agreements with rights holders.

"It is past time for Twitter to come to the table with music publishers and songwriters," National Music Publishers' Association president & CEO David Israelite tells Billboard. While it's hard to explain just how much Twitter has failed music creators in 280 characters, suffice it to say, until it takes responsibility for the content that makes its service popular, songwriters will continue to go undercompensated. Music and videos are abundant throughout Twitter and yet unlike platforms such as Facebook, Twitter still has not fully licensed that music and therefore continues to steal from creators every day."

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 30, 2021, issue of Billboard.