TikTok is no stranger to coming under fire for music copyright infringement. Ironically, copyrighted music is part of what’s essential for the social media app to thrive.
Under copyright laws, musicians are given the legal right to be paid if their works are utilised by third parties. Music copyright comprises of two main aspects. Firstly, musicians or their publishers own the right to the song. This includes composition, lyrical writing, digital and public performances. Separately, there is also the right to recording. This includes any recorded versions of the song. This copyright is usually owned by the musician’s record label.
In the context of TikTok, any song used in its videos are subjected to the same copyright rules. But what is TikTok?
Quick TikTok Breakdown
TikTok is hardly an overnight sensation – but the app’s explosion onto the international scene is most certainly catapulted by its decision to merge with Musical.ly, a social media app allowing users to create and upload lip-synching videos. The Chinese video-sharing social media platform was founded in 2012 by ByteDance exclusively for Chinese consumers, but founder Zhang Yiming made the decision to tread international waters in 2017. Downloads for TikTok skyrocketed after the merge and by 2018, TikTok became the world’s most downloaded application in the year’s first quarter. The app is estimated to be valued at 50 billion USD as of 2020.
What is TikTok’s Primary Issue?
Music is simultaneously integral to TikTok’s appeal and its Achilles heel. The nature of the app meant that accusations of copyright infringement, with YouTube’s notorious copyright infringement-induced video takedowns leading as example, came as no surprise to the general public.
TikTok’s conundrum remains that despite having multiple licensing agreements in place with various musicians, publishers and labels, the unpredictable and fast-paced nature of social media meant that it was impossible for TikTok to keep up – with lesser known, esoteric or alternative musicians losing out on royalties as no licensing deal is agreed upon between the two parties. This particular situation is of course, not exclusive to musicians of lesser public recognition. Artists such as Joji, renowned for his YouTube moniker Filthy Frank, is reported to have gone unpaid for his song ‘Slow Dancing in the Dark’ despite its association with one of the most popular TikTok memes, the #microwavechallenge.
Creators liberally uploading sounds onto the app, including unlicensed copyrighted music and homemade remixes, TikTok quickly became a haven for copyright violations. Like every other multinational, TikTok is adamant on its stance with regards to copyright issues. The app’s Intellectual Property Policy explicitly states, ‘[TikTok] do[es] not allow any content that infringes copyright. Any use of copyrighted content of others without proper authorization or legally valid reason may lead to a violation.’ TikTok retaliates to copyright violations with video take-downs, user suspension and ultimately, termination of accounts.
But what becomes evident over time is the role copyrighted music had in TikTok’s very own boom. The app has ridden on the backs of dance and comedy videos to its incredible success — and despite TikTok’s role in regulating unlicensed songs, TikTok could not, and possibly could never, match the fast-paced momentum of viral memes and challenges. And perhaps not moving as fast as young teenagers using and popularizing copyrighted music for the sake of riding the viral wave isn’t such a bad thing for TikTok — the explosion of Doja Cat’s ‘Say So’ via a single innocuous, lighthearted, fun dance video is prime evidence of the app’s ability to produce culturally relevant content and in return, become culturally relevant in itself. In short, videos using copyrighted music or not is free marketing for TikTok. Which begs the question, why should the company race to shoot itself in its own foot?
Universal Music Threatens To Sue TikTok Over Copyright Infringement
Universal Music, a member of National Music Publisher’s Assocation (NMPA), was the first to point out TikTok’s purposeful reluctance to put its foot down with regards to music copyright infringement. According to the Financial Times, a representative for Universal observed, ‘This level of blatant infringement is something that is rarely seen at this scale by a large multinational company.’ The legal dispute between TikTok and Universal Music came to light in a Financial Times article published in April 2020 as the paper reports that TikTok did not have adequate licenses for the songs made available in the app and the music publishing giant was hoping to seek payment for any lost royalties or legal action will be taken. The dispute made public meant TikTok could no longer drag its feet on the matter. A multi-year licensing deal between NMPA and TikTok was struck not long after the rift between the two giants came to light in the public eye.
But What About Similar Social Media Platforms, Such As YouTube?
Despite the likeness between the two video-streaming platforms, the implications of copyright rules and regulations differ for media content made available on YouTube and TikTok. Unlike users on TikTok, creators on YouTube are able to monetise their content if they wish to – and this includes content not created by the creator themselves. Content such as react videos and dance tutorials are strong examples of creators utilising the intellectual property belonging to an artist as part of their own and these videos are more often than not, monetized.
Following TikTok and NMPA’s deal, licensing agreements between TikTok and big-name music publishers, such as Paris-based Believe and London-based Merlin, made waves in the news. TikTok’s fervent agency in establishing positive business relationships with music publishing houses is perhaps a corrective move on the part of the Chinese-owned company to quell copyright infringement claims and to invest in the value of the music used in the app.
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