On Monday, November 11, the National Music Publishers’ Association (NMPA) sent take-down notices to fifty music lyric sites. After an October report by David Lowery, University of Georgia researcher and founder of rock bands Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, the NMPA had reason to believe that those fifty sites were publishing lyrics without first obtaining a license. The NMPA called this type of activity “blatant illegal behavior” and urged the infringing websites to either obtain a license or remove the copyrighted material from their websites.

One of the most popular and well-funded of these lyrics sites is Rap Genius. Rap Genius lets artists and site-visitors annotate lyrics to hip-hop and rap songs available on the website. Some, including Rap Genius Co-Founder Ilan Zechory, have wondered why the website was subject to a take-down notice in the first place. Zechory stated that the purpose of the website was more than to just provide lyrics, but rather to allow artists themselves and visitors to interact with the text line by line. Despite these clarifications, NMPA CEO and President David Israelite is not willing to exempt Rap Genius from the take-down notices due to their particular nature. Instead, he said that “the idea that by commentary and analysis of copy-written material excuses them from any violation of copyright is preposterous.”

Three days after the take-down notices were sent, Rap Genius announced a licensing deal with Sony/ATV Music Publishing. Due to Rap Genius’ online popularity and recent influx of venture capital, this licensing move could essentially send a lesson to the forty-nine other sites that received take-down notices from the NMPA.

Even with this licensing deal, however, Rap Genius might still might not escape liability. Since songs can be the work of many publishers and writers, the works not fully covered in the Sony/ATV catalog may be subject to further take-down notices. Israelite labeled Rap Genius’s licensing deal with Sony/ATV as damaging evidence, saying that licensing one of the biggest publishers in the world only admits that they need licenses and are cognizant that they are infringing in some way. While Israelite says that the Association’s goal is to encourage lyric sites containing infringing material to seek out licensing deals and not to actively shut down sites, the battle between the NMPA and Rap Genius could continue. The NMPA has brought two court cases against lyric sites in the past and won both. Only time will tell how aggressive the NMPA will become in further policing lyric sites like Rap Genius.

–Dustin Kovacic

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