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It’s Only Words

Pop-song lyrics are strange creatures. Many lyrics are barely literate, if not nonsensical, and are so often sung incomprehensibly that the there is an entire field of study devoted to misheard lyrics. Go look at kissthisguy.com if you don’t believe me.

It used to be that lyrics often were included in the liner notes with albums and CDs. Sometimes, the inclusion of printed lyrics was not well-advised. I mean, go read a lyric sheet! Aren’t you at least mildly embarrassed? In any event, these days more and more people are downloading music, and what they get for their $0.99 (if they pay for the download) is a digital file with the recording of the song, sometimes with some graphics included—but never, as far as I know, with the lyrics.

And some people want the lyrics. Actually, a lot of people do. Dogpile.com, the super-search engine, reported last week that “music lyrics” was the number one search request on its site, apparently beating out such other popular queries as “Britney Spears” and “Cleveland Steamer.” And there are a lot of sites out there to accommodate this demand for lyrics. If you Google any song title or performer’s name, chances are you’ll find them. The lyric sites are generally pretty ratty affairs, littered with pop-up and flashing banner ads, but the lyrics are there. They aren’t always 100-percent accurate, but they’re there, and they’re free.

An enterprising coder in Austria came up with a clever downloadable freeware program that searches the Web and finds publicly available lyrics for your songs, and then attaches them to your iTunes song files. The lyrics then display on your iPod when you play a song. The program is called PearLyrics. Apple liked it so much they added a link to PearLyrics on the iTunes site.

Last week, though, everything blew up. Several music-publishing trade groups announced they’d be going after the free lyrics sites for copyright infringement in 2006; one group even went so far as saying that it intended to put the sites’ proprietors, who were variously referred to as thieves and pirates, in jail. And Warner/Chappell Music, the huge publishing company, sent a florid cease-and-desist letter to the PearLyrics guy in Austria, telling him if he didn’t shut down his site he’d be toast.

Meantime, Google piled on the train wreck, announcing it was adding a new music search feature, which it said would make it easier to find out all sorts of things about your favorite artists and songs—including, of course, free lyrics!

The EFF jumped in, posting an open letter to Warner/Chappell, advising it that what PearLyrics was doing was, in fact, perfectly legal (remember, PearLyrics wasn’t posting lyrics, just pointing people to places where lyrics could be found), and that if this bullying continued to the next level, Warner/Chappell would indeed find itself in court—as a defendant—for making baseless threats. Warner/Chappell, remarkably, sort of apologized, and has issued a joint letter with PearLyrics in which both entities pledge to work together to bring the lyrics to the people. Significantly, though, the PearLyrics program remains unavailable.

It’s sort of like Napster-circa-2000-deja-vu all over again. The marketplace has spoken: People want song lyrics, and all these free-lyrics sites have sprung up to serve this demand. The industry jumps ugly with claims of piracy and threats of lawsuits, but has totally failed to provide the consumer with an alternative to the free sites. Just like MP3s and Napster in 2000, the only place you can get lyrics (with the exception of those artists’ Web sites that post lyrics) is through these free sites. The industry is screaming that lyrics need to be paid for, which is a questionable proposition at best, but even accepting that position, there’s no place online to buy them. How utterly ridiculous.

Given that lyric sheets were a staple in the pre-digital world, why shouldn’t digital lyric files be the norm now? When you buy a song from iTunes, or Rhapsody, or whomever, wouldn’t it make sense for the digital file to include the lyrics? Didn’t you just pay for them?

The alternative is going to be a bunch of lawsuits, a handful of lyrics sites folding, but many more, with servers offshore and beyond the reach of the publishers’ lawyers, flourishing. Getting free lyrics from “pirates” will become a cause celebre, sites that charge for lyrics will be laughed at, and the whole cycle of disregard for the legitimate rights of creators will continue to be fed by the greed and overreaching of the desperate Big Media conglomerates.

Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?

—Paul Rapp


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