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Spotify used branding of US Black cultural festival without permission, lawsuit says

Spotify last year hosted an event using the branding of what is arguably the US’s largest Black cultural festival without permission, according to a lawsuit which pits the streaming giant against the organizers of the Essence Festival of Culture.

Attorneys for the festival say their lawsuit represents a stand against the “intentional exploitation of Black culture” and intellectual property by a corporation that can more than afford to pay for permission to use Essence’s branding.

Spotify did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Essence festival is held annually in New Orleans and is often referred to as a “party with a purpose”. In addition to celebrating Black talent, the festival also seeks to address and provide resources to Black communities in areas including health, wealth, civil engagement and technology.

Over the years, the festival has emerged as a highly lucrative gathering for both the city and the surrounding region of south-east Louisiana. Organizers estimated that its economic impact on the area was $327m while employing 3,600 for the duration of the event in 2022.

But those figures pale in comparison to Spotify’s estimated $31bn worth.

And Essence ended up at loggerheads with Spotify after the festival’s organizers said the streaming company in 2022 used Essence’s brand and trademarks without permission to promote an event which Spotify hosted “as if they were part of” the festival.

The festival’s legal team responded with a lawsuit on 23 June seeking compensation, saying the event in question was held within a zone where only entities with permission could advertise or sell merchandise associated with the Essence fest.

The suit added that the cited breach came after Spotify in 2019 struck an agreement with Essence that authorized the streaming outfit’s use of the festival’s marks for the promotion and hosting of an event that year promoted as the “House of Are and Be”.

The agreement was negotiated as both Spotify and Essence contemplated a larger, longer-term partnership, the lawsuit said. Negotiations fell through in 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which forced the cancellation of the Essence fest that year.

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Spotify had not renewed its 2019 permissions when it promoted the 2022 event, billing it as a “return”, said the lawsuit prepared on behalf of Essence’s organizers by a legal team led by James Williams.

“The promotion of the 2022 event … as a ‘return’ to its success further [evidenced] Spotify’s awareness that such an event … would require Essence’s authorization,” the lawsuit added.

Essence’s lawsuit said it is seeking to recoup damages from “brand dilution, brand confusion, damage to business reputation and loss of business opportunity”. In addition to Spotify, the named defendants are the venue where the event was hosted and its owner, a local real estate developer.

“The unsanctioned Spotify … action … is yet another example of the historic, intentional exploitation of Black culture, Black [intellectual property], Black creators, Black businesses and Black equity,” Williams said in a statement. “We must protect and celebrate those companies that collaborate with our businesses to create and return value in our communities and defend our rights and value against those that chose to exploit our businesses and community.”

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