Aimee Mann's Lawsuit Exposes the Shadowy Underbelly of Streaming Music

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Those familiar with Spotify and its discontents, as well as the Pink Floyd-led backlash against Pandora, may be baffled by the name MediaNet, the media distribution company at the center of a major copyright lawsuit recently filed by singer-songwriter Aimee Mann. Mann, in brief, is claiming the company has infringed on the copyright of more than 100 of her songs and asking for what could amount to $18 million in statutory damages, according to The Hollywood Reporter. But what is MediaNet, and why is it being described as "one of the world's largest but least known providers of online music"? 

Despite the size and breadth of its content delivery operations, MediaNet has remained all but invisible—before now—in the music streaming debate.

In brief, while Thom Yorke, Nigel Godrich, Pink Floyd, and other high-profile artists have leveled their outrage at the online radio services providing their music for free streaming while offering measly royalties in return, Mann is tracing the system to its source. Founded in 1999 by EMI, AOL, BMG, and RealNetworks and launched two years alter, MediaNet (formerly known as MusicNet) was acquired by a venture capital firm in 2005 and today provides millions of songs to an impressive roster of online music services that includes MTV, Songza, Yahoo Music, and eBay. (Spotify and Pandora are not among them.) The name change, according to its website, was meant "to better represent its expanded offering of digital video, eBooks and other media types."

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Mann stepped into the picture when she entered into a three-year licensing agreement with MediaNet in 2003, she claims in her complaint. The agreement had an automatic two-year extension provision unless either party chose to terminate it—which is precisely what Mann says she did:

Mann's representative is said to have sent a termination notice in 2005, but nevertheless, "MediaNet continued after the Termination Date to transmit, perform, reproduce and distribute the Compositions as part of MediaNet's service, despite having no right or license to do so."

Mann says the only royalties she has received since 2005 was a $20 advance. Not so, claims MediaNet in a statement provided to The Atlantic Wire.

"This claim on behalf of Aimee Mann is without merit," reads the statement from CEO Frank Johnson. "MediaNet has had a license for her music since December 2003. We have been paying royalties regularly to her agents on her behalf. MediaNet is a supporter of artist rights and copyright and has been since we launched in 2001."

But the company already has a bit of a rocky legal history, Billboard points out, having been sued by the Harry Fox Agency in 2008 and by a group of song publishers in 2011, who claimed that as of last year, "23 percent of MediaNet's catalog remain[ed] unlicensed."

The Spotify hubbub revealed that just because a music-streaming agreement is legal doesn't mean that it's even remotely profitable for musicians. Mann's tribulations remind us that just because a distribution setup is entirely unprofitable doesn't mean it's legal.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.