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US appeals court sides with Google in Genius lyrics theft case

By | Published on Monday 14 March 2022


The US Second Circuit appeals court last week declined to reinstate the lawsuit filed by lyrics site Genius against Google and LyricFind.

The appellate judges concurred with the lower court that said Genius’s case was really a copyright case – despite it suing for breach of contract and unfair competition – and that the lyrics site couldn’t pursue such a case because it didn’t own the copyright in the lyrics it claims Google and LyricFind ripped off.

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 said it had caught Google nabbing its lyrics by strategically placing different kinds of apostrophes and spaces within the lyrics it published, and then watching as those specific combinations of apostrophes and spaces popped up on the Google platform.

For its part, Google insisted that all its 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.

None of which explained how those specific combinations of apostrophes and spaces were appearing on the Google site. But, either way, Genius had a problem. It doesn’t own the copyright in any of the lyrics on its website – because those rights belong to the songwriters and music publishers. So even if LyricFind, Google or someone else in the supply chain was cutting and pasting lyrics from the Genius site, it still couldn’t sue for copyright infringement.

This is why Genius instead sued for things like breach of contract and unfair competition. 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 was definitely a copyright case, and US copyright law specifically prevents people from pursuing breach of contract claims when the alleged breach relates to allegations of copyright infringement. Instead the plaintiff is obliged to sue for the infringement. But, of course, it can only do so if it’s the copyright owner. Which meant the Genius case was dead.

Genius then sought to get the case revived on appeal. But last week the Second Circuit stated: “Genius argues that the district court erred by concluding that its breach of contract and unfair competition claims are statutorily preempted [by copyright law]. We disagree”.

The Second Circuit’s judgement explains in more detail why each of Genius’s claims are “preempted” by copyright rules, though the key bit of law behind its ruling is Section 301 of the US Copyright Act, which is cited early on in last week’s judgement.

That section says that “all legal or equitable rights that are equivalent to any of the exclusive rights within the general scope of copyright … are governed exclusively by this title. Thereafter, no person is entitled to any such right or equivalent right in any such work under the common law or statutes of any state”.

We await to see if Genius plans to take the matter any further.