DistroKid faces potential class-action lawsuit over how it handles takedown requests

A US indie music label is seeking to launch a class-action lawsuit against music distributor DistroKid.

The claim argues that DistroKid’s policies make it impossible for indie labels and artists to defend themselves against allegations of copyright infringement that result in their music being taken down from platforms.

In a complaint filed Wednesday (June 7) with the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, indie label Doeman Music Group Media argued DistroKid breached its fiduciary duty to the label by failing to provide information that would help the label defend against a copyright infringement claim.

Along with DistroKid, it named indie hip-hop artist Raquella George (aka Rocky Snyda) as a defendant. The complaint seeks class-action status for the lawsuit.

“On information and belief, there are hundreds — if not thousands — of DistroKid account-holders who have had non-infringing uses of expression taken down because of wrongful takedown notices sent to platforms,” the complaint states.

The complaint, which you can read in full here, doesn’t argue that DistroKid is behind the wrongful takedowns, rather that the company’s policies prevent the indie artists and labels it serves from mounting a defense against third-party accusations.

DistroKid is one of a number of music distributors who act as intermediaries between indie artists and labels, and digital streaming providers (DSPs) such as Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal. Typically, DSPs don’t allow individuals to upload content to their servers; they have to go through a recognized music distributor.

According to the complaint, in 2020, hip-hop artist Damien Wilson (aka Frosty the Doeman) hired Raquella “Rocky Snyda” George to add three seconds of vocals to a song he was recording called Scary Movie. Wilson paid George for the performance, and included her name in the credits of the song.

Frosty the Doeman is a West Virginia-based indie hip-hop artist with 86,000 followers on Instagram. Rocky Snyda is a New York-based hip-hop artist with 10,000 followers on Instagram. Her most popular track on Spotify has been streamed some 650,000 times.

After Scary Movie was released, Wilson and George had a “personal falling out” that, according to the complaint, was the result of false information about Wilson that reached George by way of a mutual contact. George severed her relationship with Wilson and requested that her name be removed from Scary Movie.

The complaint claims that George threatened to file a takedown notice for the track if Wilson didn’t comply with her request.

Wilson “refused to alter his work to accommodate her request,” the complaint states, and informed George that she didn’t hold any copyright claims on the track.

In January of 2021, DistroKid notified Wilson that Scary Movie, along with the entire EP it was on, had been removed from streaming platforms.

The lawsuit alleges that George “falsely represented that she was the copyright holder of the song Scary Movie,” and that George used the US’s notice-and-takedown system “as a weapon to hold Doeman’s music hostage to her preferences about how Doeman exercise[s] its copyrights.”

The lawsuit alleges that, as a matter of policy, DistroKid would not tell Wilson’s label, Doeman Music Group, which platforms George’s takedown requests had been sent to, and directed the label to resolve the issue directly with George.

It also claims that DistroKid continued to keep that information from Doeman even after being told that George had broken off contact with Wilson and his label.

“DistroKid’s internal policy regarding takedowns against [indie artists and labels] creates an environment where an [indie artist’s or label’s] music can be taken down, but the [artist or label] is not given any information or tools, other than the take-down party’s contact info, to have the music put back online, especially where it’s a misuse of [the notice-and-takedown law] such that the take-down party will not resolve the issue in good faith,” the complaint states.

Under the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), platforms are required to remove content, such as music, when they receive a formal takedown notice from a rightsholder claiming the content infringes on copyright. Removing the content gives the platform “safe harbor” against being sued for copyright infringement.

The law also allows the entity whose content has been targeted for takedown to file a rebuttal, within 14 days of the takedown notice. The law says the content can stay up on the platform if the rebuttal shows the accused party plans to resolve the issue in court.

The complaint argues this system works well for the major labels and their artists, because major labels will defend their artists and will ensure that the artists’ music stays online.

“If a takedown party sends Spotify a takedown request for Taylor Swift’s music, her record label would use its expertise and resources to take immediate and necessary corrective action to avoid having the music removed from Spotify. Her major label would send a counter-notice as fast as it could. By doing so, the music does not get taken down — and her fans can continue to listen to her music and her royalties continue to accrue,” the complaint stated.

But the same is not true for indie artists and labels, whose relationship with platforms is controlled by distributors such as DistroKid, the complaint alleged.

“A music distributor may not have a financial incentive aligned with an [indie artist’s] music staying posted online. A music distributor like DistroKid collects money upfront and annually… Thus, after the music has been posted, there is little financial incentive for a music distributor like DistroKid to take extra measures to ensure that music stays up,” the complaint stated.

Additionally, “even if a music distributor requires a percentage of royalties, such payments for many [indie artists and labels] can be incredibly small. So keeping the music posted online does not necessarily benefit a music distributor because streams can be so low as to not provide financial value,” the complaint stated.

Wilson and his indie label, Doeman, are being represented by attorney Megan Keenan of the Information Dignity Alliance, an Oregon-based non-profit law firm that describes itself as focusing on “education and advocacy relating to data usage, intellectual property, and ethical information practices” and that “advocates for uses [of data and IP] that benefit the public interest.”

DistroKid is one of the most prominent independent distributors in the music industry. It was valued at USD $1.3 billion in 2021, following an investment from Insight Partners. As of that year, it was distributing more than 1 million tracks per month, which the company said amounted to “30-40% of all new music in the world.”

DistroKid has since launched DistroVid, a video distribution network; penned a global distribution deal with TikTok; and penned a deal that enables its artists to create and customize profiles on Jaxsta, which calls itself “the world’s biggest database of official music credits.”Music Business Worldwide

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