The Blitz Against Illegal Lyrics Sites

NMPA LogoWhen it comes to piracy on the Web, lyrics don’t often get a great deal of attention. They aren’t works pirates routinely download over BitTorrent networks or upload to cyberlocker sites. Yet, searches for lyrics remain wildly popular, often more popular than searches for downloads of a song, and have a thriving underground network dedicated to infringement.

But where record labels and movie studios have a long history of being active and vocal about their campaigns to stop illegal downloading of songs and movies, the campaign by music publishers against lyric sites has not been as public or as aggressive.

To be clear, the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA) has taken action in this area. Last year they scored a major win against the company LiveUniverse, winning a $6.6 million judgment. Before that, in 2009, they successfully forced LyiricWiki to move to Wikia and pay a licensing fee to avoid closure itself.

Still, despite some headline, Lyrics have stayed out of the copyright spotlight. However, the NMPA is hoping to change that. Yesterday, they announced that they are sending takedown notices to the top 50 illegal lyrics sites and giving them all a choice to either shut down, obtain a license or be sued.

But what impact will this campaign have on the illegal lyrics sites they are targeting? The answer is a little bit less clear.

What the NMPA is Doing

Rap Genius LogoAccording to their announcement, David Lowery, who is both a musician (Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven), a copyright activist at The Trichordist and a mathematician (who works as a researcher at the University of Georgia), identified through a mathematical formula what he considers to be the 50 largest unlicensed commercial lyrics sites on the Web. (Note: Lowery and the NMPA deliberately ignored personal and fan sites in their calculations.)

Those sites are now being sent notices of copyright infringement. Though the notices, according to a copy the representative sent me (Note: I am not reprinting the notice in full due to a request from the NMPA), contains much of the language of a Digital Millennium Copyright Act notice, they are actually being sent directly to the lyrics sites, as opposed to their hosts.

The sites are then notified that, “It has come to our attention that substantially all of the lyrics on your website are unlicensed. Therefore, we shall assume that the entirety of your website is dedicated to copyright infringement. As such, this notice will be followed by others, until the entirety of your website ceases to violate the rights of the creators of music and is taken down or becomes licensed.”

Of the sites targeted, the best known is Rap Genius, a popular lyric site that, last year, received some $15 million in funding from the venture capital firm Andereessen Horowitz in a bid to help the site expand outside of the genre of rap.

Rap Genius, for its part, has told Billboard that it is looking forward to talking with the NMPA and “have a conversation with them about how all writers can participate in and benefit from the Rap Genius knowledge project.”

Other lyrics sites, however, probably aren’t so eager to hear from the NMPA. But the real question is what will they do when the letters arrive?

Unpredictable Outcomes

Lyrics sites, unlike file sharing sites, are not accustomed to the legal threats of organizations like the NMPA so what exactly will happen is unclear.

According to a recent check of the domains involved using Domain Tools, 34 of the sites appear to be hosted in the United States (though at least 7 of them were using content delivery networks so their actual home country is impossible to identify without more information). Another six appears to be hosted in Canada, three in Germany, three in the Netherlands, two in France, one in Russia and one in Brazil.

Though the hosting of the site doesn’t indicate where the person who operates it resides, most of the sites use domain privacy tools to make that difficult to determine, it might give the NMPA a lever to file litigation or take additional action in the U.S., especially since some of the sites are on mainstream hosts such as GoDaddy, Hostgator, The Planet and even Google.

All in all, there is a lot of reason to be optimistic that many of these sites can be shut down, at least temporarily.

However, the the NMPA has said that its goal is not to shutter these sites, but rather, to turn them into licensed ones. In their notice they encourage sites interested in obtaining a license to contact either Musixmatch, Lyricfind or the Harry Fox Agency, complete with contact information for all three.

While this would certainly be a preferential outcome, it seems unlikely that many of the sites will be able or willing to make this jump. While all of these sites appear to be created for for profit and, undoubtedly, do make some revenue, it may not be enough in many cases to support paying a license.

Still, it seems likely that the effort will result in some sites signing up, many more closing and probably at least some requiring further action still. It’s just a matter of how many wind up in the last category.

Bottom Line

Though the NMPA has definitely taken some action against illegal lyrics sites in the past, they haven’t been under the constant pressure that file sharing sites. However, that may change with this particular campaign.

Most likely, this campaign is going to have an effect similar to the cyberlocker shakeup following the closure of Megaupload. It won’t end the idea of the illegal lyric site nor will it shutter or legitimize all 50 sites, but it will drastically impact the field and, in the case of the lyrics industry, that may give more room for the legitimate sites, of which there are may, to thrive.

In the end, this blitz will be an interesting case study. The lyrics industry is a very different one from that of sound recordings. Licensing is much easier, more legitimate options are available and the illegal market is likely going to be shaken up.

Following the exact impact this has will be interesting and will help better understand, for better or worse, the role those variables play in piracy and search results.

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