SoundCloud has had a pretty good run in terms of artist support. While publishers and some labels have been rumbling over the fact that it doesn’t pay royalties, artists using its platform to post their music have so far bought into the idea of a value-exchange based on promotional buzz and analytics, rather than revenues.

Even so, 2014 is shaping up as a year where SoundCloud has to make some tough decisions across its business, which may bring it into conflict with some elements of its community. Copyright takedowns in particular.

An article posted on music site Do Androids Dance? last week has been getting a wider airing in recent days, for its claims that SoundCloud is allowing Universal Music Group “the keys to the car” in terms of removing infringing uploads from its service.

The fuel for this fire: an email from SoundCloud’s copyright team to Greg Morris (aka Mr Brainz) after he queried some takedowns of his radio show. “Your uploads were removed directly by Universal. This means that SoundCloud had no control over it, and they don’t tell us which part of your upload was infringing,” claims an email from SoundCloud to Morris published in the story.

The publication of the email has sparked plenty of online discussion, and a direct response from SoundCloud, as published by Mixmag:

“As a responsible hosting platform, we work hard to ensure that everyone’s rights are respected. In the case of rights holders, that means having processes in place to ensure that any content posted without authorisation is removed quickly and efficiently,” explained its spokesperson.

“In the case of users, that means having separate processes in place to ensure that any content removed in error can be reinstated equally quickly.”

With a sinking feeling, the dispute is making us remember the time when it wasn’t uncommon to see music blogs sent takedown notices by the legal departments of labels whose promotional teams had sent them the MP3s to post in the first place.

Universal – or at least an unnamed source within the company talking to Billboard – is arguing that there is nothing furtive going on here. “There’s a tool, similar to other platforms, where we provide SoundCloud a list of offending URLs. We’re notifying them with the tool they’ve provided,” they said. “Unless there’s a specific reason, like a pre-release leak, it just wouldn’t come down willy-nilly.”

Note too the suggestion of friction between the label and SoundCloud over the last week’s growing row. “SoundCloud should be clear with the user about why, and the process underlying it. This story is spiralling because they’re not being transparent.” Oof.

But there are important questions here, too, for the online model of DJ mixes, radio shows and mash-ups. Mixcloud has found a way to host radio shows AND pay royalties out for the tracks played within them, through blanket licensing rather than direct deals. SoundCloud, as yet, has not, and while that state continues, so will takedowns.

More transparency around how that takedown process works is always a good idea, though. But also, SoundCloud’s standing as a ‘good actor’ within the music community means it deserves a hearing to explain how it works with rightsholders, and what this means for its creators. Less pitchforks, and more dialogue – an idea that applies to so many digital music disputes.

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