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Genius tries to get its lyric lifting lawsuit against Google reinstated

By | Published on Thursday 28 October 2021


Legal reps for lyrics site Genius were in the Second Circuit appeals court in the US yesterday seeking to get their client’s big old lawsuit against Google reinstated. They insisted that Genius had a legitimate legal claim against Google because the tech giant breached its terms of service.

Genius first sued Google in late 2019, claiming that the tech giant was pulling lyrics from its website for use in the information boxes that appear on the Google search engine when you search for a song. It wasn’t the first time the lyrics site had made those allegations. Earlier in 2019, Genius revealed that it had been using specific combinations of straight and curly apostrophes in the lyrics it published, and that the exact same combinations were appearing in the Google info boxes.

For its part, Google insisted that all the information box lyrics came from its music industry partners, and in particular lyrics aggregator LyricFind. Having been officially pulled into the squabble, LyricFind then said that it mainly sourced its lyrics from the music publishers it works with. And while it does have its own content team that checks and cleans the lyrics, it does not use Genius as a source when doing that work.

However, Genius insisted that the lyrics its team had curated and cleaned were still making their way into Google info boxes. And to prove it, the company started employing an alternative ruse where they placed different types of spaces in the lyrics they published which, low and behold, started popping up on the Google search engine.

With its lyrics seemingly still being published in Google’s info boxes – but both Google and LyricFind denying any wrongdoing – Genius went legal.

However, the lyrics site had a problem. Because the copyrights in all the lyrics on its website belong to songwriters and music publishers, not Genius. So even if Google and/or LyricFind were nabbing lyrics from its site, Genius couldn’t sue for copyright infringement, because it’s not the copyright owner in the lifted content.

So, instead, the Genius lawsuit accused Google of breach of contract, unfair competition and unjust enrichment. That was mainly based on the argument that the Genius website had terms of service which forbid the lifting of lyrics off the site for commercial purposes; and that Google or LyricFind were bound by those terms of service whenever they connected to the site; and by copying any Genius compiled lyrics they were in breach of the terms.

However, in court Google successfully argued that this wasn’t, in fact, a breach of contract case. It was a copyright infringement case. But it was a copyright infringement case without a copyright owner. And therefore the judge should dismiss the proceedings. Which she did.

But that was the wrong decision, Genius attorney Marion R Harris told the Second Circuit appeals court this week. According to Law360, he argued that the terms of service allegedly breached by Google and LyricFind are there to protect the significant investment Genius has made in curating and cleaning the lyrics on its site. And it’s unfair to ignore the rights of Genius to protect its interests under state-level contract and unfair competition laws by saying those rights are ‘preempted’ by federal copyright law.

“I think it’s important to focus on the rights that we are trying to protect here”, Harris said, that being his client’s “substantial investment in transcribing. We are intentionally protecting only the substantial effort that we put in. The notion that internet companies can [use] a copyright preemption argument to say ‘your entire business model is irrelevant, and we can steal from you with impunity’ is appalling”.

Needless to say, legal reps for Google and LyricFind were adamant that the judge in the lower court got it right, with the tech giant’s lawyer describing the case as an “attempt by Genius to stand in the shoes of the [copyright] holder”.

Meanwhile, LyricFind’s attorney added: “The lyrics themselves do not belong to Genius, and any claim that [the defendants] took the lyrics is a claim that’s reserved for the copyright holders”.

Since the last time this dispute was in court, Genius has been acquired by MediaLab in a deal that, although worth $80 million, was seen as somewhat disappointing, given that, according to Bloomberg, that price-tag was “less than what [the company] raised over the years in venture capital”.