The National Music Publishers Association has filed copyright infringement lawsuits against two companies, LiveUniverse and Motive Force, for allegedly operating Web sites and applications that offer users free lyrics.
The lawsuits, filed this week in federal district courts in California and Pennsylvania, mark the first time the publishers group has taken lyrics sites to court, says President and CEO David Israelite.
In its court papers, the publishers organization alleges that the ad-supported sites' unlicensed use of lyrics undermines music publishers' "ability to adapt to the changing marketplace" and also "cheats songwriters out of fair compensation for their creative efforts."
"As the market declines for compact discs and other traditionally important sources of income for music publishers, it is of utmost importance that Plaintiffs be able to continue developing ... emerging markets," the lawsuit alleges.
LiveUniverse, run by MySpace co-founder Brad Greenspan, operates three lyrics sites -- lyricsdownload.com, completealbumlyrics.com and lyricsandsongs.com -- that offer lyrics to "hundreds of thousands of songs" including ones written by Buddy Holly, Gregg Allman and Daryl Hall, according to the complaint. The other defendant, Motive Force, runs the site LyricWiki.org and a Facebook app, Lyric Wiki Challenge.
Lyrics sites have been around for a long time, and until recently, largely operated without licensing rights to the songs. In the last three years, however, the National Music Publishers Association has specifically targeted sites that offer free lyrics (as well as dozens of sites that offer sheet music and tablature) and demanded that they either cease and desist or license the songs. Of 84 lyrics sites contacted by the organization, 66 either shut down or agreed to pay fees, Israelite says.
He adds that the organization waited to crack down on lyrics sites until there were legal alternatives for music fans. "It's important for consumers to have a legal place to go," he says. "Lyrics are clearly something that consumers desire, based on the amount of activity on legal and illegal sites."
Although it appears that there was no previous litigation specifically over lyrics Web sites, publishers have previously sued manufacturers of karaoke machines for copyright infringement, says Tyler T. Ochoa, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law. The lawsuits against the Web companies are a "logical extension" of the karaoke cases, he says.