Last year, the song lyrics web service Genius sued Google alleging that the tech giant has been ripping off its transcriptions for display in its own lucrative search results. It seemed like an open-and-shut case. Thanks to some crafty watermarking, it appeared that Google was caught dead to rights in the lyric thievery. But on Monday, the Copyright Act got in the way of Genius’s litigation dreams.
After it began to suspect that Google was circumventing the need for anyone to visit its website, Genius decided to insert some digital watermarks in its lyrics including one that spelled out “redhanded” in Morse code. Those watermarks showed up in Google’s search results, and Genius Media Group proceeded to filed a complaint citing numerous examples of Google stealing its transcriptions. For its part, Google denied engaging in any scraping practices and pointed to the fact that it uses third parties to gather lyrics when they aren’t provided directly by the publisher. One of those third parties, LyricFind, was a co-defendant in Genius’s complaint, and it admitted in a blog post that it may have “unknowingly sourced Genius lyrics from another location.”
Months later, the decision is in, and U.S. District Court Judge Margo Brodie has decided to dismiss the case altogether.
Judge Brodie’s order doesn’t claim that Google isn’t guilty of pilfering Genius’s transcriptions; instead, it exposes the shaky legal ground of the lawsuit itself. The primary problem is that because Genius licenses the publishing rights to song lyrics, it can’t really claim that Google is violating its copyright. The issue that Genius is raising is that it spends a lot of money transcribing lyrics after it goes through the proper licensing channels. It believes that Google is stealing that money and labor through scraping.
This is where a bunch of legal and jurisdictional crap came into play, and the bottom line is that Genius had to go with a claim that Google violated its terms of service.
Judge Brodie wrote in her order that the Copyright Act, which is solely the jurisdiction of the federal courts, preempts any breach of contract claims and that what Genius is seeking to protect can be classified as a derivative work. The Judge writes that, “at its core, it is a claim that Defendants created an unauthorized reproduction of Plaintiff’s derivative work, which is itself conduct that violates an exclusive right of the copyright owner under federal copyright law.” Because the breach of contract claims are being made under New York common law and California statutory law, and Brodie finds that the Copyright Act preempts these specific claims, they are null and void.
Genius also accused Google of engaging in unfair competition, another claim that at first appears to be a slam dunk. After all, most people searching for lyrics will go through Google first, and Genius hopes to be the search link that the user chooses to find all their p-word-packed Nicki Minaj lines. Search is incredibly important to Genius as it ironically demonstrated back in 2013 when it was penalized by Google for violating search guidelines in order to bump up Genius’s ranking.
In Genius’s view, Google is stealing the clicks and the labor that went into making content for its website. But in Judge Brodie’s opinion, the Copyright Act still overrides the essential unfairness of the practices that have been alleged by Google.
Does this mean that Genius has lost and Google is free to steal all the lyrics it wants? Not exactly. It just means that, in the court’s eyes, Genius failed to make a convincing legal argument for this particular course of attack. Genius did not immediately return Gizmodo’s request for comment. In place of a comment on the case, Google just pointed us to an old blog post from last year about how it sources lyric transcriptions.
This isn’t the end of Genius, and Google has shown no intention of stealing lyrics in the future, at least not deliberately. But it does raise the question of whether some party might want to tempt the law and go full hog throwing up clones of Genius’s transcriptions. Based on the Monday ruling, that seems possible as long as the scummy hypothetical person doing it manages to get the proper publishing licenses—a thing that Genius famously did not do when it was first getting established.