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Lyrics sites out of tune with copyrights

Many sites provide the words to favorite and not-so-favorite songs. But some of the people who wrote those tunes aren't too pleased about it.

How does that song go? We've all used the Internet to search for the lyrics to songs whose tune we know but whose words we just can't muster.

Often the Web sites we end up on have misspellings or incomplete and inaccurate lyrics, not to mention annoying pop-up and flashing ads. But there's another problem with the sites--many of them are violating copyright by republishing the lyrics without permission. And they are making money from the Google text ads that appear on the site.

That's money that could be going into the pockets of people like Alexander Perls Rousmaniere, a Los Angeles-based artist who writes and produces dance club tracks, including some pop hits.

Perhaps not so surprisingly, Google--the company that's been sued for $1 billion by Viacom because of its YouTube video unit and has been the target of increasingly testy attacks from all sorts of publishers--finds itself in the center of yet another copyright storm. This time, it's the people who write music--some of them well-known and some of them obscure--complaining that the search giant is helping others step on their copyrights.

"Google is selling advertising on all the big copyright-infringing lyric Web sites," Rousmaniere said. "It may seem like small potatoes, but lyrics are a huge search term on the Internet--these sites (and Google) are probably pulling in hundreds of thousands of dollars monthly, all on the back of copyrighted material."

Rousmaniere has complained to Google, repeatedly, with limited success--Google has removed some ads on sites publishing his lyrics but then the ads go back up, he said. Google told him it is his responsibility as copyright holder to police the infringing sites and file additional complaints when the old lyrics or new lyrics of his appear without his permission, he said.

"It would literally be two to three hours a day for the rest of my life" monitoring the Web for copyright violations, Rousmaniere said. Many of the Internet service providers for the sites are located outside the U.S., making it difficult for him to ask them to shut the sites down, he added.

A Google spokesman said he could not comment on any particular copyright holder's complaint.

"We take copyrights very seriously. In accordance with our policy, we disable ads on websites in our content network when we are made aware that they appear next to copyrighted content," the company said in a statement. "Copyright holders who find their copyrighted material appearing next to Google ads can find more information about the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) take-down requests on our AdSense Web site. Hundreds of thousands of Web site publishers responsibly abide by our policies and we're committed to preventing those who don't from using our program."

Focusing on sites that monetize
Rousmaniere isn't the only copyright owner concerned about the lyric sites. Lawyers representing National Music Publishers' Association (NMPA) have met with Google to discuss the matter, said Jacqueline Charlesworth, senior vice president and general counsel. The NMPA is the leading trade association representing U.S. music publishers, with more than 700 members.

"It's a significant concern. We do send DMCA notices to sites that are commercially oriented, that are trying to profit and aren't paying the people who wrote the songs," Charlesworth said. "We did reach out to Google before we started the program and they said they would cooperate."

The NMPA began sending warning letters to infringing lyric Web sites a few weeks ago and at least one site has taken down the copyrighted lyrics, she said.

"Our next step will be to send DMCA notices to the ISPs who host the site or the search engine that shows sites up in results," she added. "We're hopeful that it will be effective. The goal and the focus here is really the sites that are trying to monetize the lyrics."

Rogue lyrics Web sites have been on the Internet for years--in part because until recently there wasn't a readily available way for consumers to get lyrics from copyright holders.

"We wanted to make sure there was a legitimate alternative available and now that there is, we think it's appropriate to have the lyrics taken down off the other sites," Charlesworth said. "There is a market for these lyrics. There is consumer demand and the lyrics enhance a digital service. It's a very significant potential market."

In April, Yahoo and Gracenote launched an online lyrics service that has received the rights from music publishers, like Universal Music Publishing Group and Sony/ATV Music Publishing, to republish copyrighted lyrics.

At the time the deal was announced, Gracenote Chief Executive Craig Palmer told Reuters that licensed lyrics services could add as much as $100 million a year to the $4 billion the music publishing industry posts in revenues annually.

But a self-described "small fish" like Rousmaniere may not benefit from a service like that, which focuses on large publishing companies. For him, the courts could be an answer, although convincing a judge that Google is liable for copyright infringements of its AdSense publisher partners would be tough, said Denise Howell, an intellectual property lawyer and blogger.

"If it could be demonstrated that the terms (of service for AdSense) are not being enforced (or are not being enforced with sufficient vigor), a plaintiff could try to build a case portraying the terms as mere window dressing, and Google as an entity with a business model that condones or even encourages its users' infringement," Howell said.

However, a 9th U.S. Circuit Court is an indication of the "uphill battle" someone suing Google would face, she said.

In that case, Perfect 10, an adult-oriented Web site, accused Google of contributory copyright infringement by profiting off revenue-sharing through Google ads on Web sites that display its images without permission. The court disagreed with that point, although it said thumbnails Google's image search displayed of Perfect 10's photos likely infringe on the copyrights.

How thumbnails translate to music lyrics is still anyone's guess.