Atlantic Records is petitioning a New York judge to issue a subpoena to Reddit to help them identify a music-leaker who posted an at-the-time unreleased song onto the social media site. The song, “Heathens” by Twenty One Pilots, was posted on Reddit June 15th, when it was not scheduled for release until nine days later. It’s included on the soundtrack for Suicide Squad. It was given to a few record company execs as well as some others who were close with the band, and someone posted it to Reddit. Atlantic is reporting severe revenue loss because of the leak.
Song leaks are not exactly new; a few times, the artist or the record company themselves will leak a song in an attempt to create some buzz around the album. For every dollar lost in leaking it for free, they make many more in album sales and concert tickets, plus there is evidence to suggest that the money spent fighting copyright infringement is not worth the settlement received in return. But in terms of issuing a subpoena for personal information, what is the legality there? Would Reddit actually be required to give up the user’s info, and has a song-leaker been punished before?
Illegal music uploading
There is precedent of a song-leaker being punished; one notable case occurred in 2009 when Kevin Cogill was arrested for uploading nine songs from Guns n’ Roses forthcoming Chinese Democracy album. At the time of his arrest, it was stated that he was looking at a three-year prison term and $250,000 in fines, but instead received only two months home confinement and one year of probation. He got this sentence because he agreed to do a public service announcement regarding music piracy, but never actually did it. Cogill is far from the only person to get in trouble for music piracy.
If you grew up in the 90s and early 2000s, you remember music sharing services such as Limewire and of course Napster. For most of you, the worst you ever experienced was the incidental download of a horrible virus that crashed your computer and necessitated buying a new one (this writer accomplished said feat three times in one year). There were others of whom an example was made, and punishment was fierce. Take, for example, the case of Joel Tenenbaum. He was fined $675,000 for sharing 30 pirated songs. Thirty. That works out to $22,500 per song. The case was even taken to an appeals court and his plea of paying $450 per song instead was denied. The rationale of the record company, with which the court agreed, was that they weren’t just considering the lost revenue from him, but from every person who also downloaded the songs he shared.
what does a subpoena mean?
The general idea is that a subpoena forces someone to appear in court for whatever grievance said subpoena entails. In this specific situation, the subpoena is asking a company (Reddit) to turn over personal information about one of its users. This is legal, and many may regard it as an invasion of privacy, despite the person whom the record company is seeking committed a crime. Social media sites are required to notify users of an information request, unless the requester is acting under a law known as delay of notification, which means that the user wouldn’t find out about the request up to 90 days after its made.
There is also something called the Uniform Trade Secrets Act, and it protects “a piece of information that has independent economic value by not being generally known and can reasonably be maintained a secret.” An unreleased song that is part of a highly-anticipated movie’s soundtrack definitely qualifies as having economic value, but an argument could be made that, because Atlantic Records sent the song to so many people, that it couldn’t reasonably be maintained a secret.
what is a nondisclosure agreement?
A non-disclosure agreement means that the person who signs one is bound by contractual obligation to not reveal any secrets expressly stipulated by the agreement. Atlantic Records notes that employees aware of the release were “contractually obligated and/or under a fiduciary obligation” to not disclose it until the 24th of June. So what are the penalties for violating an NDA? The employee would have to pay back damages caused, which could amount to a substantial sum.
So yes, Reddit will likely give up the user’s IP address and anything else Atlantic Records desires, since the user was probably someone who was given the song by the record company. Even if that person doesn’t have to pay a fine or serve a sentence, they will be fired and likely have to find a job in another industry since the one by whom he is (or was) employed can no longer trust him with industry secrets.
(Update, 8/16: Reddit has refused to hand over the user’s personal information, citing a number of problems with Atlantic’s request. Among other things, Reddit notes that, “Atlantic must demonstrate now that it has meritorious claims against the Reddit user.” It also says that Atlantic has failed to do any of their own work in regards to obtaining the source of the leak. The entire statement from Reddit is available here.)
(Update, 8/18: In a separate case, a judge in the Eastern Virginia District Court has ruled that internet service providers (ISPs) do not have release personal details of alleged copyright infringers. The copyright holder, BMG Rights Management, was denied access to the IP addresses of Cox Communication costumers.)