Back in November, the National Music Publishers Association, the trade group representing major publishers targeted 50 prominent song lyric websites they contended were reproducing and transmitting song lyrics without permission. At the top of their list of offending sites: Rap Genius.
Now Billboard reports that Rap Genius has finally made peace with the NMPA and a licensing deal has been struck.
After the NMPA initially fired off their warning, Rap Genius’s colorful co-founder Ilan Zechory seemed to hint that they might consider a fair use defense since some of the commentary functionality on the site could be said to be “transformative”:
The lyrics sites the NMPA refers to simply display song lyrics, while Rap Genius has crowdsourced annotations that give context to all the lyrics line by line, and tens of thousands of verified annotations directly from writers and performers. These layers of context and meaning transform a static, flat lyric page into an interactive, vibrant art experience created by a community of volunteer scholars.
But the time, we argued that Rap Genius’s case for fair use seemed weak once you take into account all “four factors” that together are considered by a judge to evaluate whether a particular use can be considered fair.
While the NMPA action was about takedown requests under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, ultimately their goal wasn’t to get Rap Genius and other sites taken down, but to get them to join the ranks of licensed sites, so songwriters and publishers get paid for their work. One key detail that many early media accounts missed: the NMPA contended that about half the lyric sites on the Internet were already licensed. Popular sites like azlyrics.com and songmeanings.net already compensate publishers and songwriters for their work. Publishers make it quite easy for lyric sites to license up with services like LyricFind and Musixmatch. There’s even an ad-supported free-tier for sites that can’t afford to pay for a license but still wish to host lyrics. So commercial sites really have no excuse at this point.
The issue even came up before Congress in January, when songwriter & musician David Lowery, who had worked on the data for the initial NMPA report, testified before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet, as part of the subcommittee’s ongoing review of copyright law.
It’s encouraging that litigation was ultimately avoided and that Rap Genius has chosen to do the right thing and license up. Still there’s a few things we don’t know:
First, will other sites named by NMPA get on board too? Remember, Rap Genius was just one of 50 sites named by the NMPA as copyright violators. Some like lyricsreg.com have since obtained licenses through Musixmatch. But for others it’s not clear. But other sites, like Popdust, don’t seem to have added any licensing info on their lyric pages. We sure don’t hope we have have sit through a court case that hinges on if speculation about whether a Katy Perry song is secretly about John Mayer qualifies as “commentary” and thus counts as fair use.
Second, will independent publishers be happy with their take? Publishing royalties for bulk use of this sort tends to involve fairly arcane calculations and weighting in ways that isn’t always advantageous to indies. Still, it’s better than nothing, which is what Rap Genius was paying out before the deal.
Mos Def of Black Star once rapped“Not free, we only licensed.” Now you can read the lyrics to the full song on rapgenius.com, secure in the knowledge that a license really was secured.