Elon Musk’s X Scores Legal Victory Against Music Publishers—Sort of

Dado Ruvic/Reuters
Dado Ruvic/Reuters

Elon Musk scored a big legal victory Tuesday when a U.S. district court judge threw out most of a lawsuit filed against his social media platform, X, by 17 music publishers.

But the ruling also comes with a catch–with some of the lawsuit’s core allegations able to move ahead.

The music publishers, including Sony and Universal Music, accused X of ignoring copyrights on 1700 songs by allowing people to post clips from artists including Taylor Swift on its platform without permission. The companies noted in their June, 2023 filing: “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.”

BMG, Sony, Universal Music and other members of the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA) trade group were seeking more than $250 million of damages, claiming that “Twitter has made the process of uploading infringing music to its platform extremely easy for users, requiring only a few clicks.”

They added that “the reality is that Twitter routinely ignores known repeat infringers and known infringements, refusing to take simple steps that are available to Twitter to stop these specific instances of infringement of which it is aware.”

U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger, however, did not lay the blame on X for direct infringement in her 21-page ruling on Tuesday, noting the difference in federal copyright law between being an active participant in infringement and simply the platform that provides it.

She added that Twitter seemed to be even less stringent on “verified" individuals, which was “particularly striking.”

“If X Corp. truly did allow some users to effectively purchase the right to be able to infringe with less severe consequences, then that was plausibly an instance of promoting X/Twitter’s use to infringe copyright,” Trauger wrote.

Twitter filed to dismiss last August, claiming that social media sites are not responsible and do not directly infringe copyrights when illegal material is posted on its platform. On Tuesday, Judge Trauger agreed.

“There is no basis in the law for concluding that the operator of a social media platform will face liability simply because it was less draconian in its enforcement than copyright holders would prefer,” Trauger said, adding the court will dismiss the publishers’ “theory of comprehensive general liability for infringement across the X/Twitter platform.”

“X Corp. undoubtedly had some power over X/Twitter’s users—the way that a company that provides a valued service always has power over the customers who rely on it—but that does not turn customers into even loose equivalents of agents or subordinates.”

Judge Trauger dismissed two infringement counts–Direct Copyright Infringement and Vicarious Infringement–along with a third–Contributory Infringement–however, she did take exception to infringement accusations that the platform provided “more lenient copyright enforcement to ’verified’ users,” failed “to act on takedown notices in a timely manner” and failed “to take reasonable steps in response to severe serial infringers.”

Trauger said that alleged conduct, if proven, could see Twitter responsible for damages.

“If X Corp. engaged in egregious delays in responding to valid takedown notices, or outright ignored some notices that were both facially and actually valid, that could support liability.”

A lawyer for both X did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for NMPA told The Daily Beast: “We’re pleased that the court recognized Twitter’s potential liability and that the publishers’ copyright infringement claim on all the asserted works in the case will be moving forward. The opinion makes clear that Twitter can be liable for failing to respond reasonably to the publishers’ takedown notices.

Twitter must act reasonably with respect to known infringements and known repeat infringers. The spread of rampant music piracy on the platform is obvious and unacceptable, and we look forward to securing just compensation for the songwriters and music publishers whose work is being stolen.”

An initial case management conference has been reset for May 20, 2024.

Musk bought Twitter in Oct.22 for $44 billion.

At the time of the filing, the publishers noted successful deals with other social media companies “to pioneer innovative and highly successful frameworks for social media patrons to make lawful use of Publishers’ songs on those platforms.” It named agreements on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat and TikTok—though the latter saw Universal remove its library on Jan. 30, saying in an open letter that the companies had failed to reach an agreement on three key issues: “appropriate compensation for our artists and songwriters, protecting human artists from the harmful effects of AI, and online safety for TikTok’s users.”

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