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iTunes lyrics fight ends in apology

After threatening copyright letter, music publishing giant admits to missteps in dispute with programmer.

That rarest of all things in the acrimonious disputes between copyright holders and technology developers emerged Thursday: an apology.

Last week, music publisher Warner/Chappell Music sent a threatening letter to independent Austrian programmer Walter Ritter, complaining about a free piece of software he'd developed that scoured Web sites for song lyrics and imported them into Apple Computer's iTunes software.

Ritter immediately pulled his software, called PearLyrics, offline. But after an outcry on the Web, Richard Blackstone, Warner/Chapell's chief executive officer, called the programmer, apologizing for the letter and offering the chance to work together.

On the programmer's Pearworks Web site, a brief, contrite statement was posted Thursday in the form of a joint statement from Blackstone and Ritter.

"The goal of Warner/Chappell's prior letter to Pearworks was to gain assurance that PearLyrics operated according to (legal) principles," the statement read. "However, in both tone and substance, that letter was an inappropriate manner in which to convey that inquiry. Warner/Chappell apologizes to Walter Ritter and (his company) Pearworks."

The brief, if amicably resolved, dispute highlights growing tension over the role of Web sites that post song lyrics and instructions on how to play music online.

Music publishers say the words to songs, and the sheet music showing how to play them, are copyrighted aspects of their compositions and should not be given away for free online, any more than a band's actual recordings should. They've shut down big Web sites over the issue and have threatened a new round of lawsuits next year.

In an instant-messaging interview, Ritter said he hoped to work with Warner/Chapell to create a version of the PearLyrics software that could be used as a licensed source for the words.

"A legalized, easily accessible lyrics solution would have a couple of advantages over the (maybe) illegal ones--like accurate lyrics or...correct composer information," Ritter said. He said he is still working out details on a potential collaboration with the publishers, however.