US music publishers sue online lyrics sites

Go call you a lawyer


Music moguls are opening up another can of web whoop-ass on alleged copyright-infringement miscreants, this time suing online lyrics sites.

And no, this isn't a move by the Recording Industry Ass. of America (RIAA), which is apparently still basking in the glory of its $1.92m victory over the file-sharing mother of four, Jammie Thomas-Rasset.

This time out it's the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA), which announced Monday that three of its members - Peermusic, Warner/Chappell, and BugMusic - have filed suit against two websites that threaten the commonwealth by posting song lyrics without paying the NMPA for the right to do so.

The two targets of their suit are LiveUniverse, producer of hugely popular video, social-networking, and music sites, headed up by MySpace founder Bud Greenspan; and Motive Force LLC, the group behind free-lyric site LyricWiki and led by Sean Colombo. In addition to suing the sites, the NMPA is also suing Greenspan and Columbo as individuals.

And the amount of money involved is huge. The suit against Motive Force, for example, cites hundreds of thousands of lyrics on LyricWiki, and claims that "Plaintiffs are entitled to maximum statutory damages ... in the amount of $150,000 for each timely-registered works that was infringed."

In the suits, the plaintiffs describe themselves as "music publishers that, collectively, represent many thousands of individual songwriters who have written millions of musical compositions, including some of the most popular and beloved songs of all time."

We assume that among the beloved songs to which the suit refers is "Pussy Monster" by Lil Wayne, represented by Warner/Chappell.

Lil Wayne's delicate expression of lyrical imagination is legally hosted on TuneWiki, with which the NMPA has a licensing agreement. In a canned statement explaining his reasoning behind the suit, NMPA president and CEO David Israelite said: "Music fans are the biggest losers when licensed businesses, like LyricFind, Gracenote and TuneWiki can't survive and prosper because unlicensed, illegal businesses are allowed to thumb their noses at the law."

An argument can be made that publishing lyrics online promotes music purchases and gives artists visibility to potential new fans. But the fact that some sites have NMPA licenses and some don't sticks in Israelite's craw. "We are confident the courts will conclude that, like Napster and Grokster before them, these sites are simply freeloading off artists and fans," he said.

The suit against LyricWiki also states that the site "knowingly assist[s] and induce[s] third-party software developers (which provide software appplications and services) to distribute copies of lyrics from Plaintiff's Songs to consumers' computers and personal media player."

However, earlier this month Columbo published a letter on the LyricWiki API Developers Google Group telling developers that licensing agreements with big music publishers meant that the company could no longer add programmatic access to LyricWiki's collection:

"We tried to arrange some way to let API Developers license through us, but this was not possible," the letter read. "While this is not something we are happy about, it is a necessity in order to finally secure licensing for LyricWiki from the major publishers which will allow the project to survive indefinitely."

While Columbo's letter indicates that licensing negotiations are underway, the suit against him and Motive Force states that: "Defendants plainly understand that the lyrics featured on the LyricWiki Website...are subject to copyright protection and have knowingly decided to forgo obtaining the necessary licence from the copyright owners simply to maximize their profits at the expense of Plaintiffs and the songwriters."

We'll let the judge sort out those conflicting claims, but Columbo appears have a dark sense of humor about the whole kerfuffle. On LyricWiki's home page, he announces that "LyricWiki API is going away" - and links that announcement to the lyrics of Metallica's "Fade to Black." ®

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