On Wednesday, November 25th, after business hours closed and Americans looked forward to a long Thanksgiving weekend, Spotify suddenly took down thousands of comedy tracks by Robin Williams, John Mulaney, Mike Birbiglia, Jeff Foxworthy, and more. The move appears to be an aggressive response to new organizations trying to collect literary royalties on behalf of comedians.
On November 27th, Birbiglia tweeted, “Random question: Does anyone know why some of the Comedy Central albums got taken off Spotify? 3 of mine are gone, some of Mulaney’s, one of Attell’s, but then some are still there— like Hedberg. Anyone know about any rights things happening behind the scenes with comedy albums?”
Earlier this year, Birbiglia signed with Spoken Giants, a rights administration company formed in 2019 to represent the owners and creators of spoken word copyrights. Spoken Giants was founded by former BMI executive Jim King alongside Ryan Bitzer and Damion Greiman, the heads of the comedy label 800 Pound Gorilla Records. It’s not the only such company — Word Collections formed in 2020, with a similar mission — but it seems to have been one of the main targets of Spotify’s comedy purge.
In the second quarter of this year, Spoken Giants reached out to streamers and radio platforms with introductory letters and term sheets, indicating a desire to begin negotiating rates for spoken word content. They were specifically looking at comedians’ literary rights, which would seem to be indicated by US copyright law, but which have gone unclaimed.
Recorded performances have two separate copyrights: one for the recording itself, and one for the written material. Songwriters and musical performers have collected both for years, with organizations like ASCAP and BMI emerging alongside radio to track the royalties of their songwriting members. But currently, comedians only collect royalties for their recordings.
“We started negotiations with Spotify and many other platforms,” Spoken Giants CEO Jim King told Consequence, “to go to them and say, ‘This is something that hasn’t been done before, but is owed to the copyright owners.’ You even say it — your stock holder filings say, ‘We owe on spoken word,’ but nobody has been there to collect those royalties.”
It’s an attractive message, and Spoken Giants has signed some of the biggest names in comedy, including, Birbiglia, Lewis Black, the Don Rickles estate, the Bob Hope estate, Desilu (Lucille Ball/Desi Arnaz estates), Gabriel Iglesias, Larry the Cable Guy, Tiffany Haddish, Jeff Foxworthy, Patton Oswalt, the Bob Newhart estate, Roy Wood Jr., Christopher Titus, Lisa Lampanelli, and more.