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Genius goes legal in lyrics dispute with Google and LyricFind

By | Published on Wednesday 4 December 2019


Lyrics website Genius has sued Google and lyrics aggregator LyricFind in an ongoing dispute over where the search giant gets its lyrics from. As revealed when this dispute first became public back in June, Genius reckons that some sneaky use of apostrophes – and subsequently spaces – proves that Google has been using lyrics from its database without permission.

When you search for a song on the Google search engine it usually displays the lyrics to said song in one of its ‘information boxes’, as well as linking you off to other websites that also publish lyrics, such as Genius. Google gets the lyrics for its information boxes via various licensing partnerships, including one with the company LyricFind.

Genius says that, for various reasons, it began to suspect that some of the lyrics being displayed by Google had actually come from its database. To confirm its suspicions, it started strategically placing straight and curly apostrophes in certain sets of lyrics so that, if you treated those apostrophes as dots and dashes respectively, they would spell out ‘redhanded’ in Morse code.

This, the company says, confirmed that Google was indeed displaying lyrics from its database without permission.

In the new lawsuit filed with the New York courts yesterday, Genius says that it first alerted Google to this fact in 2017. Over the following year Google repeatedly said that it was looking into the problem, but never came back with any formal explanation. So, in 2018, Genius stepped up its apostrophes trick to further confirm that Google was definitely tapping its database.

It then wrote again to Google about the problem in April this year. This time the web giant wrote back insisting that it got all of the lyrics that appear in its information boxes from its licensing partners and that it never simply scraped lyric websites like Genius for content. It also asked for further evidence from Genius so that it could further investigate.

That further investigation confirmed that the lyrics Genius reckoned were taken from its database had been provided to Google by LyricFind. Responding to that news, Genius sent LyricFind a cease-and-desist notice. But, the lawsuit says, despite now being aware that lyrics from the Genius database were arriving on the Google site via LyricFind, neither of the two companies “took any steps to cease such conduct”.

Then came an article on the dispute in the Wall Street Journal in June. Both Google and LyricFind publicly responded to that article, the former pushing responsibility onto the latter (partly by starting to list the source of its lyrics in its information boxes), and the latter insisting that it was not knowingly lifting lyrics from the Genius website.

In a blog post, LyricFind said that it employed a global content team who compiled the lyrics contained in its database from multiple sources. As an aggregator that directly works with many music publishers, those sources include its music industry partners, so publishers, songwriters and artists.

Given that parts of the music publishing sector are famously slack when it comes to data management, LyricFind’s content team also sometimes has to source, enhance or correct lyrics from elsewhere, even when they have licensing deals with the owners of those lyrics. In theory that might have once included checking the crowdsourced lyrics published by Genius.

However, the blog post went on: “Some time ago, Ben Gross from Genius notified LyricFind that they believed they were seeing Genius lyrics in LyricFind’s database. As a courtesy to Genius, our content team was instructed not to consult Genius as a source. Recently Genius raised the issue again and provided a few examples. All of those examples were also available on many other lyric sites and services, raising the possibility that our team unknowingly sourced Genius lyrics from another location”.

So, LyricFind was basically saying that its team did not consult Genius when compiling and cleaning its lyrics, but it did sometimes consult other websites which might, in turn, have lifted lyrics from the Genius database. “LyricFind offered to remove any lyrics Genius felt had originated from them, even though we did not source them from Genius’ site”, it went on, but “Genius declined to respond to that offer”.

Back in the lawsuit, Genius says that – following the WSJ report – all of the lyrics containing its ‘redhanded’ apostrophe trick disappeared from the Google platform. But did that mean Google and LyricFind had ensured they were no longer accessing lyrics from the Genius database? Or had they just started editing the apostrophes in lyrics before posting them?

To test this out Genius instigated another trick. This time is started strategically placing an alternative kind of space at certain points in certain sets of lyrics. This alternative type of space, the lawsuit explains, is called a “four-per-em space” and “looks identical to a normal space character but can be differentiated via Unicode character readable by a computer”.

If you treated the four-per-em spaces as dashes and the regular spaces as dots, this time the trick spelt out ‘genius’ in morse code. And, low and behold, the lyrics containing the spaces trick spelling our ‘genius’ started to appear in the Google information boxes.

This time Genius did some maths based on its sample set of space-tweaked lyrics, leading to the bold claim that “Genius estimates that approximately 40% of lyrics for new music displayed in [Google’s] information boxes feature lyrics that are being unlawfully misappropriated from Genius’s website”.

This second round of trickery also checked whether Google was indeed now editing out variable apostrophes having learned about Genius’s original trick. To do this Genius employed both tricks in some sets of lyrics. And when those then appeared in Google’s information boxes the apostrophes had been fixed but the variable spaces remained.

Elsewhere in the lawsuit, Genius discusses the negative impact Google’s information box lyrics have on its own traffic. It uses a new Selena Gomez song as an example.

Lyrics for the song were published on its website before appearing in the Google info box. As soon as the lyrics were available on the Google site directly, traffic coming through to those lyrics on the Genius site slumped. Which is particularly annoying because, it claims, the Gomez lyrics on the Google site contained the ‘genius’ spacing system, so had been lifted from the Genius database.

That means, if Genius’s lawsuit is to be believed, Google and LyricFind continue to source lyrics from the Genius database, and in doing so they are harming the Genius business. But, the big question is, what can Genius do about this legally speaking?

While lyrics are – of course – protected by copyright, those copyrights belong to the songwriter and/or their publisher. Neither Google nor LyricFind nor Genius has any ownership claim to any of these lyrics, whatever apostrophes or spaces might be employed.

Genius, therefore, is suing on the basis that Google and LyricFind pulling lyrics out of its database is a breach of the terms and conditions of its website. To access the lyrics, the logic goes, Google, LyricFind or one of their agents must have accessed the Genius website and, therefore, are bound by its terms and conditions.

Of course, by Google passing the buck to LyricFind, and then LyricFind insisting that its people never go directly to the Genius website and must be inadvertently sourcing the coded lyrics from another source, this argument might not stack up.

If an unknown third party is actually initially nabbing the Genius lyrics, it – not Google nor LyricFind – is arguably subject to the Genius website’s terms of service. Though Genius, of course, will seek to argue otherwise.

That said, there are other legal arguments beyond the breach of contract claims in the lawsuit, with Genius also accusing Google and LyricFind of unfair competition and unjust enrichment, citing state law in both California and New York.

Responding to the lawsuit yesterday, LyricFind CEO Darryl Ballantyne told reporters: “We have not had any contact with Genius since June, and in fact, have not even been served with the complaint. [But] from what we’re reading online, it is completely frivolous and without merit”.