The foolish war against song-lyric websites

Far from infringing on songwriters’ intellectual-property rights, sites like RapGenius.com enable rich discussion

January 3, 2014 11:30AM ET
Members of hip-hop group Das Racist perform at a music festival in 2011 in George, Wash. Sites like RapGenius.com offer informed discussion of the group’s lyrics.
Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

Remember the 1980s? When you heard a new song on the radio and anxiously waited to find out whether the DJ would reel off the names of the last few tracks to discover what it was called?

The Internet made things easier. You could Google a few words from a song and find the lyrics and name of the artist online. When Apple unleashed the iPhone in 2007, one of its greatest wonders was Shazam, an app that could magically identify a song just by “hearing” it.

Indeed, the Web has created innumerable ways to learn about music with a breadth and depth that would have been virtually inconceivable for the music fan of the 1980s or early 1990s. Yet it has also led to declining revenues for the music business and a slew of jeremiads about digital distribution’s effects on artists, from Jaron Lanier’s “Who Owns the Future?” (which blames the Internet for destroying the middle class) to musician David Lowery’s complaint that Pandora, the streaming-music service, pays musicians paltry royalties.

Lowery’s latest crusade is against music-lyrics websites, the online hubs that publish anything from song lyrics to guitar tabs. The frontman of alternative rock groups Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, Lowery has devoted increasing energy to battling what he sees as injustices against songwriters and musicians. In October, he published the Undesirable Lyric Website List, prompting legal action by the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA) against sites that Lowery says egregiously use unauthorized or unlicensed song lyrics. Included on the list were popular sites RapGenius.com, LyricsMania.com and LyricsTranslate.com.

Lowery’s argument is that such sites unfairly exploit songwriters’ work and are partly to blame for the well-known woes of the music business in the early 21st century. To his critics, Lowery is a “copyright maximalist” who thinks intellectual property rights should be enforced as strictly as possible and that copyright law should guarantee the most expansive rights to artists.

After the NMPA issued takedown notices to 50 lyrics sites cited in Lowery’s report, RapGenius announced a licensing deal with Sony/ATV Music Publishing, but it has not yet brokered agreements with the majority of publishers.

Even if major sites like RapGenius ultimately comply with the demands of copyright holders, however, songwriters and publishers will never be able to regulate every use of their work. The assault on lyrics websites, many of which foster discussion and commentary, is part of a misguided effort to enforce maximum copyright enforcement on the Web — and it is ultimately more harmful than helpful to the creative talent behind the songs. 

Playing whack-a-mole

Copyright law has become increasingly robust — or restrictive, depending on your viewpoint — since the 1970s, as everyone from book publishers to software companies to the music industry lobbied Congress for stronger protections. American copyright, which originally lasted for 14 years, now endures for the life of the author plus 70 years. Today precious little enters the public domain, where it could be freely copied and used, as the works of Shakespeare and Mark Twain can, by anyone.

The move to strengthen copyright was spearheaded by industry giants like Disney, which won passage of the so-called Mickey Mouse Protection Act in 1998, to ensure that its most valuable copyrights were prolonged. Artists such as Lowery and Talking Heads icon David Byrne worry more about new technology’s impact on musicians’ livelihoods than the bottom line of media conglomerates, but they ultimately desire the same thing — stronger copyright — and have increasingly sounded the alarm about an online economy built on free content. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs get rich, they argue, while artists are forced to give away their work for next to nothing.

However, any attempt to purge the Internet of all unauthorized content is destined to fail. The Recording Industry Association of America, for one, spent the last decade trying to shut down file sharing by litigating against 12-year-olds and college students, only to see new networks for swapping files sprout up elsewhere. It continues to fight sites it dubs “notorious” — akin to Lowery’s “undesirables” — despite the fact that Internet users consistently find new ways to share content.

“As a practical matter, Lowery's playing the same game of whack-a-mole that the labels have been losing for over a decade,” said Paul Rapp, a Massachusetts attorney who specializes in copyright law. “Sooner or later, free lyric sites will have their servers in Estonia or Belarus or some damn place, and then they're untouchable.” (Some countries are more than prepared to disregard international copyright agreements.)

Reading the lyrics to ‘My Way’ is not the same as hearing Frank Sinatra or Sid Vicious sing the tune.

The NMPA began aggressively targeting lyrics sites in 2005, accusing them of infringing copyright by making lyrics freely available. But the cottage industry flourished anyway, as sites like LyricsMania.com and Metal-head.org have persisted more or less undeterred. Even if such sites could be shut down, the availability of lyrics online has in no way contributed to “a 64 percent decline in recorded music revenue to musicians, a 47 percent decline in artist employment,” as Lowery recently described the music-industry crisis to Salon. Reading the lyrics to “My Way” is not the same as hearing Frank Sinatra or Sid Vicious sing the tune; it is no more a substitute for the work than reading a plot summary of “The Hunger Games” on Wikipedia is the same as reading the novel itself. 

In fact, lyrics sites arguably help artists. A hundred years ago, sheet-music publishing companies paid “pluggers” to perform their songs in public places, in order to stimulate the sales of written music. They wanted their songs to be heard and recognized. Lyrics sites perform a similar function, directing listeners toward the songs they have heard and informing them about who wrote or performed them. As TechDirt’s Timothy Geigner observed incredulously, the sites “do little beyond promoting interest in … songs.” 

A diminished world

The case of RapGenius highlights just how self-defeating this crusade is. The site offers a rich repository of commentary, as users annotate lyrics to document the cultural references woven through hip-hop songs. It is a collaborative project, a so-called hip-hop Wikipedia or Internet Talmud that arguably sustains and deepens the most ardent fans’ interest in the music it discusses. (The entry for Das Racist’s “Luv It Mayne” discusses in dizzying detail every word of the lyrics, explaining allusions to Doctors Without Borders, Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” and Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.”) Yet RapGenius was the top offender on Lowery’s list of “undesirable sites.”

It is also unclear that extracting licensing fees from sites like RapGenius would significantly benefit songwriters. According to a recent study by Peter DiCola of Northwestern University School of Law, surveyed musicians reported that only 6 percent of their income came from songwriting royalties; 78 percent came from activities like touring and teaching. DiCola concluded that “a hypothetical boost in revenue from more effective enforcement would only increase the average musician’s total revenue by a small amount today.” 

The NMPA may succeed in imposing licensing fees on lyrics sites, or even shutting a few down. Songwriters may get some pocket change, but the big companies that own many copyrights (and the lawyers who negotiate the licenses) will benefit the most. And lyrics will continue to circulate anyway, just like MP3 files. 

Lowery and his allies subscribe to the mistaken premise that copyright is meant to provide the artist with the right to benefit from any and all uses of a creative work — what legal scholar James Boyle has called “the logic of perfect control.”  In fact, American copyright has always circumscribed artists’ rights: The U.S. Constitution aimed to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts” by assuring artists the prospect of monetary gain for a limited time and only under specific circumstances, not an absolute or eternal property right.  

Indeed, music is the example par excellence of copyright’s limitations. In 1909, Congress set up a compulsory license system allowing performing artists to freely record their own versions of songs by paying a flat royalty to the composer. The songwriter benefits by being paid, but lacks the right to control who records his work or to negotiate a price for permission. The result has been a wide berth of freedom for recording artists to cover and interpret others’ songs, and broadened exposure for songwriters’ work.

A world where every use of a copyrighted work has to be negotiated, permitted or litigated in advance would be a diminished one. It would mean fewer great cover songs; but it would also curb the creative collaboration and experimentation that RapGenius embodies — as well as the genius of hip-hop itself, with its traditions of sampling, borrowing and collage. If Lowery and his allies succeed, they will only choke off the potential for fans to learn about music and for artists’ own work to flourish.

Editor's note: A previous version of this essay misidentified the streaming-music service that Lowery claimed paid musicians paltry royalties. It is Pandora, not Spotify. However, Spotify has also previously been the subject of complaint by Lowery.

Alex Sayf Cummings is an assistant professor of history at Georgia State University and the author of "Democracy of Sound: Music Piracy and the Remaking of American Copyright in the Twentieth Century."

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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