It Doesn't Take A Genius To Recognize How Dumb Genius' Lawsuit Against Google Is Over 'Stolen' Lyrics

from the not-how-any-of-this-works dept

Earlier this year, we wrote about what we referred to as "the dumbest gotcha story of the week", in which the annotation site Genius accused Google of "stealing" lyrics from their site -- which they "discovered" by a modestly clever use of curly apostrophes and straight apostrophes as hidden markers in their own posting of lyrics, which they then spotted on Google. As we explained, the actual evidence did not suggest at all that Google was copying the lyrics from Genius. Instead, as became obvious, Google (like most other lyrics sites on the internet), licenses lyrics from LyricFind. Indeed, it later came out that basically every site that uses LyricFind had the same "watermarked" lyrics.

In our original post, we went through all of the various legal arguments that some were suggesting Genius could use against Google, and highlighted how each of them was laughable. The copyright doesn't belong to Genius, so there's no copyright claim. Also, as we noted in the original post, when sites like these "license" lyrics from publishers, they're often just licensing the ability to guess at what the lyrics are. The publishers themselves often don't have their own lyrics. Indeed, we pointed out that some publishers use the various lyrics sites as the source for their own lyrics that they licensed. So everyone's just kind of making it up as they go along, and there's no proprietary right to your version of the lyrics vs. someone else's.

However, for reasons I do not understand, Genius has decided to go ahead and sue both Google and LyricFind over this. The complaint is in state court in Brooklyn, and... it's bad. I mean, if people were to put the complaint on Genius and "annotate" it, most of it would just be people laughing at how bad the arguments are.

And, honestly, this entire lawsuit is strategically idiotic for Genius -- a site that regularly takes content from elsewhere on the internet for the purpose of annotating it. Indeed, I used to regularly see Techdirt posts hosted on Genius for others to annotate (though now I'm looking and it appears that Genius has gone back to focusing just on lyrics, and stopped hosting annotated blog posts).

There are no copyright claims, of course, in the complaint, because Genius holds no copyright here. Instead, the claims are just grasping for anything. And I can't see the lawsuit getting very far. The strongest claim (and it's not that strong) is that there's a competition issue with Google displaying lyrics in its "one box" at the top of search results. The argument is that by providing this information directly, rather than passing you on to a link to Genius, Google is somehow being anti-competitive:

When virtually all mobile users and many desktop users search for song lyrics, and Google returns an Information Box containing the requested song lyrics, the Information Box is displayed in such a manner that the user cannot see any other search results without first scrolling down, as shown below.

Moreover, Google’s lyrics Information Boxes frequently appear in search results as a part of larger search features that include links to Google-owned revenue-generating products, such as YouTube and Google Play, as shown below. Specifically, many lyrics Information Boxes prompt users to play the music video on YouTube or stream the song on Google Play.

Of course, the obvious response to this is that there are perfectly legitimate, non-anti-competitive reasons to display the lyrics as part of the search result: because that's a much better experience for end users. That's why Google licensed the lyrics in the first place. The argument that Google is unfairly then linking to its own "revenue generating products" is potentially interesting, but directly undermined by Genius' own screenshot showing that Google also links to competing services alongside its own links (indeed, in the screenshot they used to suggest anti-competitive behavior, the top link is actually to competitor Spotify, not Google!).

Soon after this, Genius undermines its own argument even more by highlighting that some Google lyrics are different from Genius':

For example, as shown below, Google’s Information Box results display inaccurate lyrics for the song “Perfectly Wrong” performed by Shawn Mendes. Genius’s website, on the other hand, displays the accurate lyrics.

They're trying to make a competition argument here -- similar to Yelp's various complaints against Google -- that Google is favoring its own inferior quality information for the information box at the top, when it should pull from better sources, like Yelp or Genius. But... doesn't that completely undermine the idea that Google is just copying Genius' version of the lyrics (over which Genius has no proprietary interest in the first place)? If the complaint is just that Genius doesn't like that Google doesn't display its lyrics (meaning, the dispute is really that Google isn't paying Genius for a license instead of LyricFind), then that seems pretty damn weak. There is no requirement that Google has to pull or license from Genius, and there's even a potential Section 230 defense, that Google's choice of whose lyric's to display are immune from liability.

That leaves just the pure competition question -- but the easy response to that is, again, that Google is providing users a better overall experience, and under current antitrust standards, it's tough to build a case around that.

Anyway, after complaining that Google doesn't use Genius for lyrics, the complaint shifts to whining about when it does use Genius for lyrics, calling it "misappropriation." There is an attempt to argue that Google copied directly from Genius (rather than from LyricFind, or another lyrics licensing service Musixmatch) based on a single song, "Panda." Genius highlights that on a specific day in June of 2016 (?!?), the lyrics on Google appeared to match directly with Genius' version, but not the versions found on sites that licensed from LyricFind or Musixmatch. Of course, it's possible that the sites that Genius used to check those others databases were not up to date. And, more importantly, Genius still has no proprietary interest in the lyrics, so there's simply no argument for why any of this should even matter.

There are other self-contradictions in the lawsuit. Genius complains that after they alerted Google to copying of its version of lyrics, Google and LyricFind did not immediately remove those copies. But then, later, when both companies changed their versions of the lyrics, Genius complains again that this is them trying to hide the evidence.

The wholesale removal of Watermark #1 following the publicity of the Wall Street Journal article suggested to Genius that a deliberate effort was being made to conceal the misappropriation of lyrics from Genius’s website, and Genius suspected that it was likely such misappropriation was continuing unabated.

Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Genius also notes that it added a new watermarking system later this summer, no longer just using the curly vs. straight apostrophes, but also using two different types of blank spaces.

This watermark involves replacing the 15th, 16th, 19th, and 25th spaces of each song’s lyrics with a special whitespace character called a “four-per-em space.” This character (U+2005) looks identical to the normal “space” character (U+0020), but can be differentiated via Unicode character codes readable by a computer. If one ignores the first 14 spaces of a song’s lyrics, then interprets the four-per-em spaces as dashes, and regular spaces as dots, the sequence spells out the word “GENIUS” in Morse code, as shown below.

This is at least clever, but not sure how it has a legal bearing on the case. What is notable, at least, is that Genius claims that Google started removing the apostrophe watermarks, but missed these new watermarks, suggesting that if it was sourcing these lyrics from Genius, that it had set up a process to remove the known watermarks, but not the unknown watermarks:

Even more egregious, with regard to lyrics in Group C (lyrics featuring both Watermark #1 and Watermark #2), Genius identified numerous instances in which Watermark #1 was not present in Google’s lyrics Information Box, yet the same lyrics featured Watermark #2, the details of which had not previously been made public.

Again, this is clever, but so what? What is the legal basis that would make this violate the law? That's not clear. Both Google, LyricFind, Genius and others all have a license to the lyrics, and part of that license is the right to display whatever version of the lyrics they want. Adding in silly watermarks doesn't create a quasi property right in "your" version of the lyrics.

When we get to the actual claims in the lawsuit, Genius argues that LyricFind scraping its site is a breach of contract. Of course, this comes just months after a court said that scraping of public information on website is not a violation that can be litigated. That was in the 9th Circuit, which is not binding on a NY state court, but it is notable.

I have a difficult time seeing this lawsuit getting very far, though perhaps some courts will take a flyer on the competition claims. That's at least more reasonable than the misappropriation arguments, that appear to be pure nonsense. Still, it's quite amazing that a site whose entire reason for being is to annotate others' content is now arguing that no one can make use of content (which it doesn't even have any proprietary interest in) from its own site.

Filed Under: appropriation, competition, copyright, lyrics
Companies: genius, google, lyricfind


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  • icon
    Norahc (profile), 6 Dec 2019 @ 9:30am

    This watermark involves replacing the 15th, 16th, 19th, and 25th spaces of each song’s lyrics with a special whitespace character called a “four-per-em space.” This character (U+2005) looks identical to the normal “space” character (U+0020), but can be differentiated via Unicode character codes readable by a computer. If one ignores the first 14 spaces of a song’s lyrics, then interprets the four-per-em spaces as dashes, and regular spaces as dots, the sequence spells out the word “GENIUS” in Morse code, as shown below.

    Let me guess....the first 14 spaces spell out "NOT"

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 6 Dec 2019 @ 9:36am

    if people were to put the complaint on Genius and "annotate" it, most of it would just be people laughing at how bad the arguments are

    Quick, someone hire Joel Hodgson to do it!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Dec 2019 @ 10:43am

    I'm not seeing the anti-competitive here. Even if Google is linking to YouTube, or showing inaccurate lyrics in its InfoBox... How does that prevent anyone from going directly to the Genius website to get the lyrics?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 6 Dec 2019 @ 11:52am

      Re:

      The argument is that Google is leveraging its dominance in one area (internet search) to arbitrarily advantage its services at the expense of competitors.This is one of the oldest arguments in the anti-trust playbook; it was a main pillar of the case against The Standard Oil Company, who used their ownership of oil pipelines to favor their own production and refineries ("Almost everywhere the rates from the shipping points used exclusively, or almost exclusively, by the Standard are relatively lower than the rates from the shipping points of its competitors...Sometimes connecting roads prorate on oil—that is, make through rates which are lower than the combination of local rates; sometimes they refuse to prorate; but in either case the result of their policy is to favor the Standard Oil Co. Different methods are used in different places and under different conditions, but the net result is that from Maine to California the general arrangement of open rates on petroleum oil is such as to give the Standard an unreasonable advantage over its competitors.")

      As Mike mentioned in the article, this is a fairly weak argument to use against Google in this case, as their inclusion of the actual lyrics in their results (as opposed to just links to the lyrics) is clearly beneficial to consumers, and actions which are beneficial to consumers are extraordinarily difficult to litigate under US anti-trust laws.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Bergman (profile), 6 Dec 2019 @ 5:21pm

        Re: Re:

        If what Google is doing was in fact illegal under anti-competition laws, then a car company would break the same law every time they made a car that was faster or got better mileage or even had more comfortable seats than their competitors, and thereby got a larger market share.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 15 Dec 2019 @ 5:33pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          i don't think the car companies example works well in this case. but for fun's sake why not,lets's go with your car example.
          better description of the situation :

          One big car company is copying engine/aerodynamics/other IP/ from other, smaller one.
          Neither one owns copyright on its cars parts/designs, but both buy rights to reproduce engine/aerodynamics/suspension designs that are copyrighted by third company.

          The smaller company lets its fans/customers submit designs of engines/car parts they created examining the third company's copyrighted engine/car part designs and also lets them submit improvements to them.

          The larger car company then copies the designs and shows them, along with attribution to third company,but without referencing the other one they copied them from.

          Due to its market position the bigger company can promote better, and delivers them faster to its customers.It has multiple sources and its cars are regarded as faster in general.
          But the bigger company obscuring source of their cars design does seem a bit unfair

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 15 Dec 2019 @ 5:03pm

        Re: Re:

        the main problem seems to be that google doesn't provide link to source along with the lyrics.

        considering geniuslyrics is too providing a service beneficial to consumers, a service similar if not same as the search results box , and if we accept that displaying lyrics without a link is damaging lyrics' source,
        i think there might be a viable parade-of-horribles like argument, along the lines of:

        if we allow this behaviour in general, it would be detrimental to quality and availability of lyrics to songs, at least for lyrics where no no original text is provided by publisher, due to:

        1. less traffic => less comunity participation in lyrics transcription
        2. less funds to provide the means for lyrics transcriptions to be shared and improved ,

        the result being that community driven lyrics transcription service providers like geniuslyrics would die out,which would mean less benefit for all consumers.

        not sure if such a leap from simple rules (does it harm consumer now ) towards considering the longterm effect has a chance of success against mass of case law .

        certainly it would be a hard fight even to determine which standard courts should use in judging longterm effects (although i find it personally beyond reasonable doubt that google acting like in this cae doesn't help consumers )

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 21 Jan 2020 @ 11:57pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          Not only is Google not providing a source, why they did start adding sources, they were inaccurate (linking to lyricfind, not genius) despite Google "investigating" and assuring that lyricfind does not steal lyrics.

          They also are driving significant traffic away from genius, where before google lyrics go up genius claims 60%-80% click through rates, then after google lyrics are posted they see CTR drop to ~10%, claiming accumulated damages on the order of 10 million dollars.

          It is also very important to note that they are not just sueing Google, they are suing Google for using lyricfind while knowing that lyricfind stole the lyrics, and they are additionally sueing lyricfind for the original theft of lyrics.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Dec 2019 @ 10:45am

    Watermark removal

    suggesting that if it was sourcing these lyrics from Genius, that it had set up a process to remove the known watermarks

    I've been "removing watermarks" from my local copies too, then. But that was just cleaning up what looked like sloppy text entry. There's a good chance that Google had detected inconsistencies in text encoding—these two types of apostrophes are visually distinct—and decided to correct it, without ever noticing any "watermark". If the spaces are not visible and don't affect searching (they didn't say whether it does), there would be little reason to remove them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 6 Dec 2019 @ 11:38am

      Re: Watermark removal

      I miss WordPerfect and its 'reveal codes' function.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        JoeCool (profile), 6 Dec 2019 @ 12:43pm

        Re: Re: Watermark removal

        All the old editors had something akin to "show control codes". Whatever happened to that? In fact, more than half the editors out now simply refuse to open a plain text file if they detect unknown codes in it.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 6 Dec 2019 @ 5:22pm

          Re: Re: Re: Watermark removal

          Whatever happened to that?

          Try exporting to HTML, if the software offers that. But it may be so full of junk that it will need further processing for you to easily find the text.

          The watermarking being discussed has nothing to do with control codes. Save as UTF8 plaintext and load in any hex editor to find any unexpected non-ASCII Unicode. Or just search for the expected punctuation mark and use the "highlight all matches" feature—any non-matching punctuation will remain dark.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 6 Dec 2019 @ 10:31pm

          Re: Re: Re: Watermark removal

          Word doesn't have that anymore? Was sure 2k3 still had it. Pretty sure the Open Office forks have it. And some text/code editors have it or is available as scripts/plugins/whatever - Notepad++, Sublime, and friends.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Bruce C., 8 Dec 2019 @ 3:59am

        Formatting codes (was Re: Watermark removal)

        The modern equivalent is "show html (or sgml) tags" or "edit html".

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Rico R. (profile), 6 Dec 2019 @ 11:36am

    Agreed. Genius owns nothing. The publishers do!

    You wouldn't steal a copyright infringement claim.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Rico R. (profile), 6 Dec 2019 @ 11:50am

      Re: Agreed. Genius owns nothing. The publishers do!

      But in all seriousness, if two parties licensing the same rights from the same copyright holder(s) are deemed to be infringing each other, it goes to show how backward copyright has become. First, how does a win for Genius constitute a win for the promotion of the "progress of science"? If anything, it hinders it as that lowers the number of parties where you can receive licensed views of lyrics.

      Second, copyright infringement only concerns the "protected" elements that were allegedly copied. Because Genius doesn't own the copyright of the lyrics, at most, they own the copyright of the special way they formatted apostrophes and/or spaces to spell out "red-handed" or "Genius". Even though the way they spell out the simple words are clever, I'd argue it isn't creative enough to warrant copyright protection. Genius can't own the copyright to a phrase and a word that's been used before for a super long time. It's crazy that this is what copyright infringement lawsuits have been reduced to.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 6 Dec 2019 @ 12:00pm

        Re: Re: Agreed. Genius owns nothing. The publishers do!

        In regards to the second, I'd argue that even if arrangements of unicode characters are eligible for copyright protection, unless you can prove which unicode characters the artist used when writing the lyrics it would be impossible to make the claim that any specific arrangement of such characters are not covered by the original lyric copyright to begin with.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 6 Dec 2019 @ 12:25pm

        Re: Re: Agreed. Genius owns nothing. The publishers do!

        It would be also interesting to know what the terms of the license Genius has from the music industry state.

        I would not be surprised if the license Genius has states whilst they are free to post and work out what the lyrics to a song should be, the music company still owns the underlying lyrics and also quite possibly takes ownership of the lyrics Genius has worked out.

        So the music company legally takes the lyrics from Genius and licenses them to other companies as the official lyrics as why do the work yourself when you can get someone else to pay you to do the work for you.

        A similar thing happens with older PC Games - gog.com basically fix up older games with permission to get them working on modern computers with the intention of selling them on their site, however due to licensing terms the publisher can take these fixed copies and sell them on other sites such as Steam.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Dec 2019 @ 12:25pm

    "Genius argues that LyricFind scraping its site is a breach of contract."

    First thought - use robots.txt and block scraping. Thus no posibilty of "contract breach" with whomever.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 6 Dec 2019 @ 12:55pm

      Re:

      robots.txt is a voluntary standard, not an actual blocker. Anyone who is willing to violate a contract (with associated penalties) would have no problem ignoring a standard without such penalties.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 15 Dec 2019 @ 6:54pm

        Re: Re:

        google ignores robots.txt , advises you to use their search console and manage search results for your page via search console.
        if you restrict googlebot's access to subpages of your site, they decrease your "pagerank", due to "site problems" , meaning you get knocked down a bit in search results .

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Bobvious, 6 Dec 2019 @ 5:11pm

    Google's choice of whose lyric's to display

    lyricˊs

    I 👀 what you did there

    .... -- .. .- -.. .-. -.. -.- . --- -. ...-

    There are other self-contradictions in the lawsuit. Genius complains that after they alerted Google to copying of its version of lyrics, Google and LyricFind did not immediately remove those copies. But then, later, when both companies changed their versions of the lyrics, Genius complains again that this is them trying to hide the evidence.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rMz7JBRbmNo

    Damned if you Do...
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHZwCkrVnVs

    a process to remove the known watermarks, but not the unknown watermarks:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=REWeBzGuzCc

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    I'm Skyler, BITCH!, 7 Dec 2019 @ 7:53pm

    This article is dumb

    First of all, if Lyric Find wants to pay people to listen to songs and transcribe them so that google can post them on the top of the first results page, that's fine. Putting links to companies owned by alphabet on the search page is also fine. Giving companies that you own prominent, artificial placement to the detriment of other sites without placing any form of disclaimer is anticompetitive. Google might have been able to claim that they didn't realize that was preferential treatment if they hadn't made most of their money off selling those top 3 results spots to companies because they're provably higher traffic areas. Receiving revenue for content that you did not produce without sharing that revenue with the original producer is the very definition of copyright infringement and because genius was able to prove that Lyric Find had just scraped everything from them without a single alteration (unless you want to argue that Lyric Find thought it would be a hilarious joke to put secret morse messages in their lyrics that say GENIUS) that's a clear cut case. The fact that LyricFind went back and altered the lyrics outside of the window that Genius provided is an actual crime, called spoliation of evidence, not to mention the fact that its the ethical equivalent of pulling your pants down after you've taken a shit. Again, if Lyric Find had paid employees to transcribe the songs based on their interpretation, that's cool, but copying off another website that receives revenue for providing these services is not and given that YouTube is famously touchy about copyright infringement it would be a bit of a double standard for Alphabet to not punish infringement when its in their favor. Even if all the actions that Alphabet and Lyric Find have taken are technically legal, the fact that they have been so underhanded in the behavior suggests that they were well aware it was morally ambiguous and would badly affect their public image. On a final and personal note, I find the fact that someone not obviously in the employ of Alphabet would write multiple articles to be so ethically disgusting and disgustingly sycophantic that I need to go buy some Rohtos to wash this filth from my eyes

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 8 Dec 2019 @ 3:52am

      Re: This article is dumb

      ...Man, when you come up with spiels that make Hamilton's ramblings look sane...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      bhull242 (profile), 8 Dec 2019 @ 10:02am

      Re: This article is dumb

      There’s a lot wrong here, but I’ll just point out three things.

      First, Google doesn’t own LyricFind; they just have a license agreement with them. They are also not responsible for what LyricFind does.

      Also, what exactly has been so underhanded about what Google did, and what’s so morally ambiguous about it? The lyrics alteration was almost certainly automated to remove any possible copyright interest Genius had in the lyrics (which is none, by the way). And what LyricFind may or may not have done doesn’t matter; we’re talking about Google, which, again, doesn’t own or run LyricFind.

      Finally, even if you’re right about the morals and ethics of the situation, that’s completely irrelevant here, in an article about a lawsuit. The primary or only issue is whether Google (or Alphabet) themselves did anything unlawful. Anything else is immaterial.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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