For the first few years of its existence, Genius (formerly Rap Genius) featured annotated song lyrics on its platform without permission of music publishers. Now Genius is accusing Google of stealing its content without permission. And it’s used an ingenious mechanism to catch Google in the act.
In May 2014, Genius finally made a licensing agreement with music publishers following months of criticism from the National Music Publishers Association trade group. But since then, the company has become more concerned with how others are using their content.
On Sunday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Genius accused Google of pulling lyrics from Genius.com and publishing the content on its platform. When people search for songs on Google, an “information panel” often appears near the top that shows the lyrics. Genius believes those lyrics, at least in some instances, come straight from Genius. The company blames a decrease in traffic to its site on Google’s transgressions.
WSJ reports that Genius told Google earlier this year and in 2017 that it knew Google was using Genius’ transcriptions and warned that the action violated antitrust laws and broke the company’s terms of service.
“Google knowingly displays lyrics that are copied from Genius in search results in order to keep users from leaving Google to go to other sites,” Genius chief strategy officer Ben Gross told Gizmodo, in a statement. “They have known about this for two years and it’s clearly unfair and anticompetitive.”
Genius told WSJ it was able to prove this because it hid a sort of hidden code in its lyrics. In song lyrics, the company alternates the types of apostrophes it uses—some curly and some straight—in a specific sequence. When these different apostrophes are turned into dots and dashes, they reportedly spell out “red handed” in Morse code. Genius confirmed to Gizmodo that it found lyrics on Google that had the “red handed” pattern.
When WSJ was reporting the story, Google denied it had done anything wrong and said the lyrics that appear in information panels are licensed from third-party partners.
One such partner is the Canadian company LyricFind, which has agreements with music partners. The company’s chief executive Darryl Ballantyne told WSJ his company doesn’t pull content from Genius. Reached for comment by Gizmodo, Ballantyne said LyricFind is “preparing a statement to correct the inaccuracies in current reporting” that he will provide when available. We will update this post when LyricFind shares a statement.
After the WSJ article—which verified Genius’ claims that its code appeared in Google-displayed lyrics—was published, Google issued a new statement, which it also shared with Gizmodo. The Google spokesperson said the lyrics appearing in Google searches are licensed from many sources and not directly scraped from websites.
“We take data quality and creator rights very seriously, and hold our licensing partners accountable to the terms of our agreement,” the spokesperson said, “We’re investigating this issue with our data partners and if we find that partners are not upholding good practices we will end our agreements.”
Update 3:15 p.m. EST: LyricFind released a response to the WSJ article that suggests the company may have “unknowingly sourced Genius lyrics from another location.”
The response also asserts that Genius is inflating the issue. “Genius claims, and the WSJ repeated, that there are 100 lyrics from Genius in our database,” the statement reads. “To put this into perspective, our database currently contains nearly 1.5 million lyrics. In the last year alone, our content team created approximately 100,000 new lyric files. The scale of Genius’ claims is minuscule and clearly not systemic.”