Logo: Spotify

Spotify has been the biggest music streaming service to find a business model that users can accept, and music labels can endure. In its early days, the company positioned itself as “a viable alternative to music piracy.” But allegedly, the company’s beta was filled with pirated MP3 files.

Rasmus Fleischer is researcher and historian from Sweden who has a particular interest in copyright issues. His early fascination with intellectual property led him to join Sweden’s Piratbyrån (piracy bureau), an advocacy group focused on the free sharing of information. Along with other members of the group, he went on to help launch the popular torrenting site The Pirate Bay. So, when Spotify was in its nascent days, Fleischer and his colleagues took a keen interest in the service.

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Fleischer has moved on from The Pirate Bay and is currently collaborating with several other authors on a book about Spotify that should be out in 2018. In a recent interview with the Swedish publication DiGITAL, Fleischer previews some of the info that will be included in Spotify Teardown – Inside the Black Box of Streaming Music. Spotify’s early use of pirated music is certainly the juiciest anecdote and his story of how he was initially tipped off to that practice is pretty funny.

According to Torrent Freak:

Rumors that early versions of Spotify used ‘pirate’ MP3s have been floating around the Internet for years. People who had access to the service in the beginning later reported downloading tracks that contained ‘Scene’ labeling, tags, and formats, which are the tell-tale signs that content hadn’t been obtained officially.

The Spotify beta launched overseas back in 2008. Around that time, Fleischer was in a band and they decided to distribute their album exclusively through The Pirate Bay. Soon after releasing the torrent to his own album, Fleischer discovered that it was available for streaming on Spotify. “I thought that was funny. So I emailed Spotify and asked how they obtained it,” he says. “They said that ‘now, during the test period, we will use music that we find’.”

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For Fleischer, this story is an enlightening example of how important pirate culture was to the birth of Spotify. In the midst of their efforts to sell the service to the public, the industry, and politicians, the developers simply “distributed mp3 files that the employees happened to have on their hard drives.” Fleischer isn’t trying to take shots at Spotify, he’s just attempting to map out the history of an important time in technology. He sees the pirate culture that rose in the early aughts as a transformative moment and he feels The Pirate Bay “helped catalyze so-called ‘new business models’.” According to him, it’s no coincidence that Spotify was formed in 2006, the same year that The Pirate Bay was raided and temporarily shut down.

It’s easy to forget that a lot of tech titans got there start in illegal piracy. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s first venture was a failed peer-to-peer network called Scour. Before making billions with Facebook, Sean Parker was a founder of Napster. And Spotify CEO Daniel Ek was the CEO of uTorrent before going off to found his own company. It was kinder, gentler time of tech mavens breaking laws. These days, people like Kalanick have to do some real damage to disrupt.

[DiGITAL via Torrent Freak]