While lyrics pages--especially those created by fans--have been online for years, the Music Publishers' Association and National Music Publishers' Association only recently started complaining that Web sites containing lyrics violate the publishers' copyrights.
The new Google service calls even more attention to those sites--potentially increasing users' awareness of such sites, and also making them even easier to find.
In the two weeks before Google unveiled its service, the Music Publishers' Association and National Music Publishers' Association publicly charged that posting lyrics online violates the music publishers' copyrights.
David Israelite, president of the National Music Publishers' Association, told BBC News that "unauthorized use of lyrics and tablature deprives the songwriter of the ability to make a living, and is no different than stealing."
Meanwhile, the Music Publishers' Association President Lauren Keiser said the group will next year begin actions against sites that post lyrics. A spokeswoman for Israelite said he was unavailable for comment; Keiser did not return phone calls for this article.
Google typically removes sites from its index if there is a complaint that the site violates copyright law; as of press time, Google didn't respond to questions about whether any such complaints had been lodged about lyrics pages.
Israelite's remarks to the BBC were about both lyrics and tabs--or written notations for playing the music--but lyrics alone appear sufficient to draw publishers' ire.
Several weeks ago, Warner/Chappell Music demanded that pearLyrics cease and desist distributing a software program that made it easier for users to add lyrics to their iPods. pearLyrics complied with the request. But late last week, under pressure from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Warner/Chappell apologized to the developer of pearLyrics.
Warner/Chappell's initial request, says EFF lawyer Fred von Lohmann, assumed that consumers who had already purchased a song couldn't legally download the lyrics--when that conclusion might not be the case. "When I buy a CD, I think I should have the right to figure out the lyrics," he said.
Still, the pearLyrics dust-up didn't shed any light on the larger question of whether posting lyrics online violates the rights of copyright holders. Lawyers say the answer is likely to turn on the thorny question of whether posting lyrics constitutes a fair use of copyrighted material.
"Fair use is pretty context-specific and tends to be fairly unpredictable," said attorney Eric Goldman, who teaches cyberlaw at Marquette University Law School.
One of the crucial factors is whether these sites hurt the market. But which market? It's probably not the same market as for audio songs, Goldman says. In fact, fan sites might even help the market for songs.
Rather, it's more likely that online lyrics sites hurt the potential market for song lyrics. But that raises the question of whether such a market exists.
The mere fact that lyrics sites have been around for so long might be evidence that such sites haven't hurt an existing market, said Goldman. Otherwise, the music publishing industry presumably would have acted before now. "The music industry doesn't easily overlook situations where they're losing revenues," Goldman said.
But von Lohmann proposed another theory. He said music publishers apparently want to create a new market in selling online lyrics--and that lyrics sites potentially hurt this future business.
"What the publishers are arguing is that they could offer an Internet-based lyrics search service, and these sites cut into that market," von Lohmann said. He added that it's as if the publishers are saying: "We are losing the money we could have made if we had done this and charged you for it."