Twitter Music Lawsuit: Judge Allows Publishers’ Copyright Case Against X To Move Forward

A federal judge is allowing music publishers to move forward with a copyright lawsuit filed against X Corp. over allegations of widespread copyright infringement on the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

In a split ruling Tuesday (Mar. 5), Judge Aleta A. Trauger tossed out major parts of the case, like the accusation that X itself directly infringed any music. But she allowed some of the lawsuit’s core allegations — that X essentially enabled illegal behavior by its users by refusing to crack down on them — to move ahead.

In one example, the judge ruled that the music companies could pursue their “particularly striking” allegation that Twitter had been less willing to crack down on users who had paid for “verified” status.

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“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,” the judge wrote.

The case against Twitter was filed in June by dozens of music publishers, who claim that users on the Elon Musk-owned site had infringed over 1,700 songs from writers like Taylor Swift and Beyoncé — a claim that, if proven, could put the social media giant on the hook for $255 million in damages.

The case was organized by the National Music Publishers’ Association, which has long argued that Twitter is the last major social media service that refuses to license music. TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat have all allegedly entered into such deals with publishers, providing a library of licensed music for users to legally add to their posts. The lawsuit claimed that Twitter had, instead, effectively allowed its users to supply such music illegally.

The case was filed by Concord, Universal Music Publishing Group, peermusic, ABKCO Music, Anthem Entertainment, Big Machine Music, BMG Rights Management, Hipgnosis Songs Group, Kobalt Music Publishing America, Mayimba Music, Reservoir Media Management, Sony Music Publishing, Spirit Music Group, The Royalty Network, Ultra Music Publishing, Warner Chappell Music and Wixen Music Publishing.

Twitter moved to dismiss the lawsuit in August, arguing that social media sites clearly do not directly infringe copyrights when users upload illegal material. And they argued that digital services also cannot be sued for so-called secondary infringement unless they take active steps to aid the illicit behavior: “In this case, plaintiffs do not allege that X encouraged, induced, or took affirmative steps with the intent to foster the infringement of plaintiffs’ works,” the company’s lawyers wrote at the time.

In Tuesday’s ruling, Judge Trauger partly agreed with Twitter’s arguments. She easily dismissed the allegations of direct infringement, citing recent Supreme Court precedents, and also ruled that the company could not be held liable for “vicarious infringement” — meaning it profited directly from allowing illicit materials on the site. She also ruled that the music companies could not accuse X of so-called contributory infringement simply by offering tools that could sometimes be abused by infringers.

“Many of the supposedly problematic practices that the plaintiffs identify are unremarkable features of X/Twitter generally that X Corp. has simply failed to fence off completely from infringers,” the judge wrote. “The plaintiffs have not identified any basis for concluding that X Corp. was obligated to make its service worse for everyone, just to punish the people who misuse it.”

But Judge Trauger said other alleged conduct, if ultimately proven, could put Twitter on the hook for damages. One such claim, she said, is the allegation that X committed contributory infringement by failing to crack down on “severe serial infringers” who “openly and obviously used the service as a tool for repeatedly posting infringing content.”

“If … there was a class of X/Twitter users who were brazenly using the platform as an infringement tool, and X Corp. made the decision to unreasonably withhold enforcement of its own policies against those users … then X Corp. could plausibly be held contributorily liable,” the judge wrote.

Another claim Judge Trauger allowed to move forward was that X took too long to respond to takedown notices from copyright owners: “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.”

Notably, Tuesday’s ruling did not address the thorny issue of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a federal law that provides sites like Twitter with immunity — a “safe harbor” — from litigation over material uploaded by their users, so long as they promptly remove it when asked. The music publishers say X clearly failed to do so; the site strongly denies that point.

Though X’s initial motion to dismiss the case did not invoke the DMCA, the company’s lawyers will undoubtedly do so at a later stage of the case now that some of the claims are moving forward. When they do so, the statute will provide X lawyers with another avenue for defeating the allegations that Judge Trauger refused to dismiss on Tuesday.

An attorney for X did not return a request for comment on Tuesday evening.

In a statement to Billboard, a spokeswoman for the NMPA said the group was “pleased” with the ruling: “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.”

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