Getting Tough With Unlicensed Lyric Sites

by Juan Carlos Melendez-Torres, Policy Intern

If you’re seeking lyrics to your favorite songs online, you now have two fewer sites to choose from. That’s because back on May 21, the National Music Publishers’ Association (NMPA) filed lawsuits against two unlicensed lyrics sites, SeekLyrics.com and LyricsTime.com, as the latest step in an ongoing effort to ensure that publishers and songwriters get compensated when lyrics are reproduced and transmitted online. Since then, these offending sites have disappeared from the internet. But don’t worry; you probably won’t notice they’re gone, and you can instead choose from one of the plethora of licensed and legal alternatives.

You may remember when back in November 2013 the NMPA notified these sites and 48 others of their suspected infringing material. Contrary to some confused initial media reports, the goal was not to shut the sites down but instead to encourage them to join the ranks of licensed sites and factor the cost of obtaining licenses into their business models.  As we wrote at the time:

…popular sites like AZlyrics.com, Songmeanings.com, Lyricsfreak.com, and dozens more all pay for licenses. Lyricfind even provides a free licensing tier (with a built-in monetization scheme) for those that can’t afford to pay. Today, commercial lyric sites really have no excuse not to be licensed.

[…]it’s worth noting that this takedown request seems tailored to target large-scale commercial sites, not fan pages or individual users. So, let’s be clear—this is not much like the controversial  RIAA lawsuits against individual file sharers of the 2000s. Rather, the NMPA is targeting big companies, some of which are raking in large amounts of venture capital in part by monetizing others’ creative work without compensation.

Since then, many of the big names on the list, most notably RapGenius, have negotiated licensing deals with publishers, while others were simply taken down. According to musician/researcher David Lowery, whose University of Georgia project on unlicensed lyrics sites has served as a key source of public information in this matter, there are still many more sites that are still in negotiations. Incidentally, there’s also probably a public benefit to this shift toward licensing in that licensed sites that obtain lyrics through official services like Musixmatch or Lyricfind may be less likely to contain the annoying transcription errors that plague some of the sketchier sites.

This more recent shift towards litigation represents the next step in escalating the tone of the proceedings and shows that the NMPA means business. David Israelite of the NMPA has described litigation as a “last resort” to deal with non-compliant sites, and while we too wish it hadn’t come to this, the sites were certainly offered plenty of time and opportunity to do the right thing in the six months between notification of infringement and the suit being filed. We don’t agree with NMPA about every music business issue, and we’ll continue to watch to see whether any damages/settlements that might be awarded end up making it back to songwriter’s wallets. But in terms of the overall goal of increasing the overall percentage of lyric sites that compensate songwriters and publishers, and establishing licensing as more of an industry-wide practice, we can only conclude: so far, so good.

Submitted by kevin on August 6, 2014 - 3:59pm

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