1. How are lyric sites breaking copyright law?
When songs are released, the lyrics and music are published and are subject to copyright. This is a revenue source for artists, and it's how songwriters make money off covers and other versions of their songs separate from their own recordings. Record labels either own or license an artist's recordings, but very seldom hold the publishing rights. Similarly, songwriters typically sign publishing deals in which they assign some part of the ownership of their songs in exchange for royalties received by the publisher for the use of the song. The publisher brokers many deals on the songwriter's behalf by licensing out their entire songbook for various uses, such as sheet music and karaoke tracks. If a lyric site paid a blanket licensing fee to these publishing companies for use of their lyrics, songwriters would receive a cut of the revenue.
2. Why are lyric sites in danger?
The National Music Publishers' Association, a trade association representing American Music Publishers, has sent takedown notices to the top 50 unlicensed lyric sites in an effort to push these sites toward acquiring official licenses that will give artists and publishers a share of the sites' revenue from advertising. Takedown notices aren't a direct legal action so much as a stern warning from copyright holders. If sites agree to take down the material, they are protected as a condition of the Online Copyright Infringement Liability Limitation Act, but if they refuse, the copyright holder can pursue a lawsuit within 14 days of the notification.
3. Whose idea was this?
The NMPA's campaign is spearheaded by David Lowery, a researcher at the University of Georgia, and an outspoken advocate for musicians' rights. If you're of a certain age, you will remember Lowery as the frontman of the '90s alt-rock band Cracker. If you're of a slightly older certain age, you know him as the singer of the '80s indie band Camper Van Beethoven. The NMPA's list of 50 sites was created by Lowery using an algorithm determining which unlicensed sites were the most flagrant violators. RapGenius, a popular site that allows users to annotate lyrics and assorted documents, is at the top of this list.
4. Why is the NMPA targeting lyric sites all of a sudden?
Publishers generally ignored lyric sites for years on the assumption that there was not much money at stake, but now there is plenty evidence to suggest that many of these sites are making big money off advertising and high search traffic. Since record sales keep going down and most artists only make a pittance off having their music on streaming services, this suddenly looks like a good and largely untapped source of revenue for publishers.
5. Are all lyric sites violating copyright?
Most are, but a few, like azlyrics.com and songmeanings.com, are fully licensed. (Notably, azlyrics.com ranks among the top 500 websites in the United States.) The NMPA's previous efforts in enforcing copyright law with lyric sites have been successful in either pushing the sites to obtain licenses from publishers, or shutting the sites down.
6. Why is RapGenius considered to be the worst offender?
Lowery has explained the algorithm he used to determine his list of the most "undesirable" lyric sites in a document shared on the NMPA site, but it's hard to parse exactly what makes them the worst of the worst. However, it's easy to see why they would be a target — the site is increasingly popular, and recently received a $15 million investment from Andreessen Horowitz, a venture capital firm based in Silicon Valley. Whereas it's an educated guess that many of the sites on Lowery's list are making good money, it's a matter of public record that RapGenius is a big business.
7. But isn't RapGenius protected by fair use?
Theoretically, yes. Unlike a lot of lyric sites that just plop the words to songs on a page loaded with ads, RapGenius' extensive user-generated annotations can be seen as transformative works based on copyrighted works. "The lyric sites the NMPA refers to simply display song lyrics, while Rap Genius has crowdsourced annotations that give context to all the lyrics line by line, and tens of thousands of verified annotations directly from writers and performers," RapGenius co-founder Ilan Zechory argued this point in a statement to The New York Times. "These layers of context and meaning transform a static, flat lyric page into an interactive, vibrant art experience created by a community of volunteer scholars." Similar arguments apply to a wide range of online content involving copyrighted works, including most of what you see on BuzzFeed.
8. If the NMPA succeeds, will unlicensed lyric sites disappear?
Oh, this is very doubtful. Every time the music industry succeeds in shutting down a high-profile copyright offender — Limewire, Mediafire, Megaupload, the list goes on — other similar services have consistently rushed in to fill the void. Many of these lyric sites may end up shutting down or going legit, but it's very likely that other unlicensed lyric sites will come along. It's just the way the web works.
9. What about lyric videos on YouTube?
The NMPA is not targeting these videos just yet, but it's likely that it's something they are thinking about. Lyric videos can generate staggering video views and generate a lot of money when the videos have ads. Record labels have taken to making their own official lyric videos as an increasingly common part of artists' promotion cycle for new singles. It might not be long before the NMPA goes after unofficial lyric videos too, though it may be more difficult to enforce.