Next time you hear your favorite song on the radio and whip out your smartphone to Google those hard-to-decipher lyrics, you may be asked to enter your credit card information before you can get them. That might be extreme, but there is little doubt that change is coming in the world of online song-lyrics.2196126808_3d30a9181a

In August 2009, music publishers Peermusic, BugMusic, and Warner/Chappell filed a copyright infringement lawsuit in the District Court for the Middle District of California against LiveUniverse, alleging infringement based on the posting of copyrighted song lyrics online. LiveUniverse is one of the world’s largest online entertainment networks, and is owned and operated by Myspace co-founder Brad Greenspan. The website allows millions of viewers to post and share videos, digital music, and, of course, song lyrics. Publishers collect royalties for songwriters and composers when their music or lyrics appear on the radio, television, and the Internet, but websites like LiveUniverse circumvent formalities and offer the lyrics for free. Peermusic was successful in gaining a preliminary injunction against LiveUniverse, and the company was ordered to remove any unlicensed or otherwise infringing content from the website.

LiveUniverse said, “Make me.”

As a result, U.S. District Judge George Wu held Greenspan and his company in contempt of the preliminary injunction, and ordered the websites be completely disabled. Seemingly fearless, LiveUniverse refuses to budge. Frustrated with the court’s inability to get Greenspan and his lyric-stealing site to play ball with an infringement action, attorneys representing Peermusic recently asked the court to grant them domain control over lyricsdownload.com, completealbumlyrics.com, and lyricsandsongs.com instead. The court has yet to do so, but has ordered Greenspan to pay costs and fees for failure to complete discovery obligations. It’s unclear why the court feels LiveUniverse is any more likely to comply with this order than those previously issued.

In any case, is appears Greenspan and his company are winning the stand-off, stating the content is gone when in fact it remains accessible on the site. “This is just a small distraction effort by Peermusic and its attorneys Arent Fox, LLC to disrupt, halt our business and intimidate small business,” Greenspan said in an e-mail. “As of this moment, the lyrics that plaintiffs wanted removed to the best of our knowledge have been removed.” That knowledge must be pretty limited.

With the steady decline of revenue generated in the music business, it should come as no surprise that music publishers are going after anyone and everyone who might possibly be technically infringing on its copyrighted content, thereby seeking to monetize every potential use of copyrighted material online. Surely, the goal of this on-going litigation is to either force licensing agreements for the display of lyrics online, or for music publishers themselves to gain a monopoly over the monetization of online lyrics.

4371001458_5e12899950Perhaps the more interesting aspect of this case is Greenspan’s lack of response to the infringement suit. The music industry is notorious for its overuse of the 1976 Copyright Act to either scare or sue potential infringers into submission. The success of this strategy has varied (think Jammie Thomas-Rasset), but the almost complete lack of cooperation by LiveUniverse indicates that perhaps those lawsuits aren’t quite what they used to be. One possibility is that Greenspan has little time for anything other than his mission to save MySpace. If not, then his conduct begs the question: Is copyright protection increasingly becoming an abstract concept instead of an enforceable statute? Do infringers even care?

In reality, LiveUniverse will likely end up complying with the judicial order to remove the infringing lyrics. If and when that occurs, the door for music publishers to charge fees for accessing song lyrics will open — though the battle to control lyrics posted online is likely futile.  Let’s hope it stays that way.

– Lauren Kilgore

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One Response to Obtaining Song Lyrics Online May Soon Cost More Than a Few Minutes of Your Time

  1. John says:

    Srsly, paying to access lyrics? One of these days someone is going to make a list of artists who support oppressive copyright regimes, and a boycott will ensue.