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I just don’t understand…

I read today that pearworks has been forced to discontinue distribution of their awesome pearLyrics widget--this handy tool downloaded and displayed the lyrics for the currently-playing iTunes song. pearworks received a cease and decist letter from Warner/Chappell Music Limited, requiring that pearLyrics be removed from distribution. You can read more about it here on the pearLyrics site.

The reason for this posting, though, isn't to try to start a groundswell of opinion to get pearLyrics back on the market (though that would be a nice outcome). Instead, there's a Big Picture item here that I just don't get: why do the record companies care about the distribution of lyrics? Regardless of whether I own a CD by Band X or not, why does any record company care if there are lyrics servers out there distributing the words Band X's music? I understand that the lyrics are copyrighted, but it's not like the words do a lot of good to anyone without the music (do they? Is that what I'm missing?). And this isn't a case where someone's done something like scanned the latest Grisham novel and put it online for download--in that case, the product is the words, and the artist is clearly damaged by the distribution of the scanned words. But with songs, the words themselvese aren't really good for much of anything without the accompanying music and vocals, right? So why do the record companies care?

To me, this is completely 100% backwards from how it should be--I would think record companies would want people distributing lyrics to songs. That way, someone might stumble across a song with interesting words, and then go out and (gasp!) purchase the song. Instead, the record companies are going out of their way to prevent the distribution of lyrics. Can someone brighter than I explain exactly why they're concerned about this? Like Windows and $50,000+ Cadillac pickup trucks, I just don't get it, so I assume I must be missing something obvious.

26 Comments

  1. This is just a guess, but when the record company owns the copyright for a song, it probably owns not only a particular recording of it made at a certain date which they then put on CDs, but also the lyrics, notes etc. in a lot of cases. I mean if the lyrics belong to a previously published poem, then it is a different story, but I assume this is not the case in general. Therefore, they seem to be within their rights to enforce their copyrights regarding lyrics.

    However, whether it makes business sense or not is another story. Although an interesting lyric that you come across may induce you to buy the music, I don't think that happens very often. Instead, they might want to make money out of selling lyrics for 10c a piece or bundle it with your CD purchase. If the lyrics are already available on the web, obviously that would not work. Still, the more copyrights they enforce against seemingly innocent uses, the more they will lose public support against piracy. They can keep on donating money to politicians, but if the public is set against them, not many politicians will look after their interests wholeheartedly. The region coding in DVDs is already a big nuisance to quite a few people, then "Sony CD rootkit" debacle and now this... I think they are crossing that thin line.

  2. It is the music publishers not the record companies that are putting up a stink. The record companies usually have musicians under contract to record music and own the physical masters and make money through the sale of the physical or digital music. Music publishers, usually affiliated with labels and sometimes have similar names, represent the songwriter's songs and collect money when songs are played on the radio, played live, licensed in film/tv or through the sale of sheet music. Like record companies, publishers are threatened by the internet and have been slow to adapt. Instead of taking advantage of these new opportunities, music publishers are scared and ultimately doing themselves a disservice.

  3. Songwriters and the music publishers get paid in addition to the performing artists. There have been many cases of a song being written for a particular musician, the performance selling only decently, and then being re-recorded decades later by a new musician and making the songwriter a fabulous amount of money in royalties. Publishing music for high school bands, commercially available songbooks, karaoke machines etc are all consistent and profitable revenue streams that don't involve selling the performance of the song.

    All that said, it's silly to fight about having lyrics in iTunes. If someone were selling bootleg karaoke machines, or pirating sheet music instead of buying it, there would be a legitimate loss. Music listeners simply having the words in front of them is nothing new, as many liner notes already include them, and there is no commercial damage either way. This is someone flexing their muscles just because they feel like being a jerk.

  4. I do know that at one time the companies kept very strict control over the lyrics so that they could make money off of official lyrics and chord books. One of the reason Sgt. Pepper's was so groundbreaking (among a myriad others) was that it included the lyrics with the record for the first time ever.

    That's all different now of course, with Google etc, so I don't know why they still care.

  5. If the music publishers put up their own websites with song lyrics after the "illegal" ones are shut down, I won't mind their clampdown. I can get song lyrics and they can earn their revenue from web ads. However, it would suck if they shut down existing sites and try to go back to pre-1995 days. In any case, good luck shutting down the ones operating abroad, especially if they don't design their own nicer looking versions.

  6. This is indeed crazy. This is like threatening a web browser developer because you can use their product to view lyrics. I'll certainly be holding on to my copy of Pear Lyrics.

    It all sees like a very short sighted, reactionary, err... reaction. Again. When will they learn?

  7. First, I agree that trying to control the use of lyrics is crazy. I hear a song on the radio, I pick up a phrase or some keywords, I search, I find, I buy. Take all the lyrics off the internet and how do I do that? The record companies are some of the stupidest monkey brains I can think of.

    Second, I think that a groundswell of protest, and a large distributed effort to offer pearLyrics for download is in order. They simply cannot be allowed to ruin people's lives (the pearLyrics devloper) and deprive the world of great software just because they don't like it.

    When will they learn???

  8. Just like Napster and other FREE download sites cut into the sales of CDs, you can bet that Pear Lyrics cuts into the sales of sheet music. Sheet music used to be big business, and it is still a cash cow for the music industry.

    Also, I'm sure that if Pear Lyrics can get away with putting the lyrics online, then the arrangements will not be far behind.

    Maybe the music companies could sell the sheet music on line, or lisense them to companies like Pear Lyrics.

    Imagine, if arrangements were sold online, someone could develop karioke software.

  9. #8: But here's what I don't get. Sheet music includes both music and lyrics, right? So how is having the lyrics alone going to cut into the sales of sheet music?

    I completely understand the need to keep rights to sell and profit off sheet music. But how is anyone going to use freely-downloadable lyrics to play a given song at their next piano recital?

    -rob.

  10. PearLyrics doesn't put the lyrics online. All it does is search well known lyrics sites and display the results. So what I don't get is, why go after Pear? What are they doing wrong? Seems like you could just as easily put a cease and desist on Google for doing the same thing. Or, as someone else said, browser companies.

    If music companies, or sheet music companies, or whoever, want to protect their interests, that's fine. In a lot of cases, they're just being stupid and shortsighted and greedy. Again, fine. I hope they lose. But in this case, I don't quite see where they're even within their rights. Seems like they're just pushing around the little guy for no particularly good reason.

  11. The same law that protects the arrangements protects the lyrics. The owner has to defend both, or lose both.

    Would you be willing to pay fifty cents to download the sheet music, or even just the lyrics? Would anybody? The only way to find out is to first convince people that they aren't free.

  12. But I guess that's my point -- they *are* free, in the vast majority of cases. They're bundled with the CDs.

    Not so true with music store purchases, though even some of those have the lyrics...

    -rob.

  13. Those of you who attempt to explain why Warner would want to shut down pearLyrics are ignoring one important fact: The lyrics are available freely online. All the program does is find them. If Warner objects to lyrics being online why pick on Pear?

    No, the explanation is much simpler and sad. This is just another smack at the iPod and iPod users.

  14. One of the CDs I bought this year has the lyrics in the sleeve. There is a note from the band complaining that they had to get permission from the publishing company to print their own lyrics. Not all bands publish the lyrics. So, for those bands that did not get permission it would be illegal to print their lyrics.

    The publishing company owns the lyrics and does not like when they are printed especially online. What these illegal sites have done is sit down with pen and paper and copy the lyrics down. They then print them online, which the publishing company can't stand. The record companies are putting out the legal letters to prohibit this because the publishing company is putting up a stink.

  15. To robg's point that the lyrics are free because they're bundled with CD's - Not true. Song lyrics are separately copyrighted literary works that get full protection under copyright law. Just because the band/publisher (whoever owns the rights) has chosen to print a copy of the lyrics on the CD liner doesn't mean that the lyrics are then free to be copied. All that the owner of the CD gets is the right to read the lyrics from the CD case, and nothing more. The CD owner cannot legally make copies, distribute copies, or even perform them in public just because she bought the CD. The owner can transfer the lyrics printed with the liner notes provided with the CD to someone else, but can't keep a copy for herself.

  16. I didn't mean free in the "GPL" sense. But free in the sense that you already have them if (in most cases) you have the CD.

    I understand they're copyrighted works. But I'm trying to understand the damage done here by having lyrics available -- as noted in comments here and on Slashdot, lyrics actually help people spend money on music.

    And granted, I don't spend a lot of time browsing music stores, but is it even *possible* to purchase just the lyrics for the song? All I've ever seen for sale is sheet music, for which I have no use.

    This really just seems like they're taking big steps to shoot themselves in the foot...

    -rob.

  17. robg:

    Sorry, didn't mean to lecture. And I'm with you on the short-sightedness of the publishers. Do they think we'll pay to subscribe to a service that provides lyrics? Not likely. Protecting song lyrics with these heavy handed tactics sours people on dealing with record companies/music publishers. The book "Pirates of the Digital Millenium" is a good read about the music industry and intellectual property in the digital age.

    Same issue goes for guitar tabs, which probably violate an exclusive right in copyright as well, and arguably take away sales from the sheet music publishers. I use the OLGA guitar tab apple script in iTunes - I'm sure that the music publishers want to shut this service down, too.

  18. Why don't they go after Apple for having a lyrics pane in iTunes? Wouldn't that just encourage things like this. The fact of the matter is that they went after pearLyrics because they weren't likely to follow through in a suit.

  19. Oops, I forgot to mention, in regards to #9, pearLyrics searches for chords as well as lyrics.

  20. Case in point:

    A friend sent me the lyrics to "Orange Sky", recently used in the movie Paradise Now.

    A F T E R reading the lyrics, I went to the iTunes Music Store and PURCHASED the song.

    Are the publishing companies listening?

  21. I didn't read all the comments here, so I hope I'm not repeating something someone else already said.

    Most people fail to realize the degree to which our intellectual property system is broken. There're two main issues: copyright law was enacted to protect the investment of publishers. It is not now, nor has it ever been for the benefit of the artist.

    The most fundamental problem, though, is that the laws for physical property were applied, with very few modifications directly to data. This obviously doesn't work very well...

    I believe the whole system needs to be completely recreated. Not that I expect this to happen any time soon. But it creates situations like this: pearLyrics had nothing to do with any meaningful infringement on the rights of the copyright holders. They were just available for legal assault—by contrast with offshore lyrics servers.

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