What's the concern about online lyrics?

I understand why copyright owners are worried about piracy of entire songs. But why are they so worried about online song lyrics?

Back when the Web was young, one of my favorite sites was the International Lyrics Server, a searchable database containing lyrics to more than 100,000 popular songs. In 1999, the site was sued by the Harry Fox Agency, a major song publisher, and Swiss police raided the site's ISP and the homes of two of its owners. The site shut down, and today lyrics sites are among the worst, plagued with obvious inaccuracies, pop-up ads, and even drive-by spyware installations. (I won't link to them, but run a search for any song lyric on Google and you'll see what I mean.)

Today, News.com's Elinor Mills posted a story about a songwriter and producer who's upset that the owners of these sites are making money by placing Google Ads on them. The National Music Publishers' Association, which represents songwriters, has also met with Google to try and get them to cooperate in policing these sites.

I understand why artists, publishers, and record labels are concerned about the piracy of entire songs. When music's available for free through file-trading networks, or on CDs burned and swapped among friends, there's a reasonable expectation that sales of recorded music will be hurt.

But with lyrics, what market is being harmed? I'm sure there are licensing fees associated with lyrics--for example, when an artist covers a song written by somebody else, or when lyrics are included with sheet music or karaoke software. But those aren't the people getting song lyrics from the Internet. Rather, it's millions of typical people who always wondered what Michael Stipe's saying in that end of the world song (no help there--the lyrics sites can't even agree on which set of nonsense to print), or want to figure out who sang "and if they stare, just let them burn their eyes on your moving." Nobody's spending their afternoons reading them, or posting text files of song lyrics to file-trading sites.

I understand that it's not fair to earn money by posting somebody else's work. But at the same time, I find it really hard to believe there's $100 million a year in song lyrics, as the CEO of Gracenote claims.

Bob Dylan has the right idea: post the lyrics for free, and perhaps you'll make some new fans. Or at least please your existing ones.

 

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