PearLyrics – an suitable case for treatment

A very nice young Austrian chap recently put together a little program called PearLyrics that found the lyrics for your song and squirted them into the lyrics field in Itunes to make them appear when the song played. Fab! Only one problem – the lyrics sites he spidered were nearly all illegal. As a result he got a very nasty letter from the publishers Warner Chappell telling him to stop what he was doing – cease and desist (never understood what desisting actually is – anybody know?).

Anyway – there’s been great mutterings amongst the digerati about this because it seemed like a new front had just been opened up in the global war waged by the music industry against the consumer.

People as usual jumped up and down and claimed that lyrics should be free, that if I’d bought a CD I had the right to anything I wanted to do with the music and the composition and the lyrics – and that publishers are greedy bastards and so are the artists.
Prof Von Lohmann of the Electronic Freedom Frontier was most vocal about all this, although wrong in some places too, but he pursuaded Warner Chappell to recant their accusations and to let the little man from Austria go back to his business – which we’re now waiting to see what will happen next.

I posted the following pompous offering to the digital music community bitch list – also known as the Pho:
There are some more distinctions that we should make in all of this – and some matters of practicality.

The IP rights in lyrics to a composition are separate and definable as are the rights in the composition.

Generally speaking, the publisher licenses the label to make a recording and the mechanical right includes both those elements.

Equally, generally speaking, when a consumer buys a recording (CD or Digital) – they are buying the right to play that recording in the privacy of their home – and that includes the lyrics and the composition insomuch as they are bound up in the recording. It is highly debatable as to whether they have also therefore bought the right to reproduce those lyrics in any other form. If the label does not choose to reproduce the lyrics – that is almost always a decision taken with the close involvement of the artist. The album artwork has, in my experience with many bands, proved to be almost as emotionally complex a set of discussions as the choice of tracks to go on the record. If the lyrics aren’t published in print by the way – it may well be that they have never been written down anywhere – or perhaps only exist as a set of scribbled notes in the artists’ notebook.

The US “fair usage” provisions, which by the way do not really exist in European law, provide the usual ambiguity about what a consumer might do in the privacy of their own home. And, although my dear American friends, you may rightly feel this week that the Thought Police are upon you, so far the financial value of lyrics and compositions alone has not made pursuing the infringement of rights in them big enough business to make anyone that excited.

Interestingly in this debate, no one seems to have mentioned the Hal Leonard Corporation in the US and Music Sales Ltd in London. These are the sheet music guys who do make a small but not unhealthy living precisely by publishing song books of lyrics and compositions transcribed. It is their livelihood which, arguably, could be being affected by the illegal activities of fan sites. The sheet music business is estimated to be worth about $1bn worldwide and, as I am currently the CEO of a company ( whose technology is being used to facilitate the online exploitation of those rights in a suitably clean and simple DRM protected form (check out our Scorch technology), I guess I have an interest in this too! The fact is, of course, that the lyrics tend to have less value in this arena than the notation – but if you want to learn to play a song – you probably want to sing it too – otherwise what’s all the fuss about?

I agree that the tone of the Warner Chappell letter was typical of the bullyboy style of the current music industry. That is as regrettable in my view as the endless consumer lawsuits issued by the RIAA and BPI and IFPI organisations, but is the value in the IPR that we are discussing here so marginal as to be better recouped by selling merch? Half the time, when we find out the real lyrics to a song we end up preferring the ones that we imagined hearing ourselves. (My favourite misheard line for years was “I fell in love with a Starship Trooper!” which I gracefully reinterpreted as “I fell in love with a draft excluder”. So, in the case of inane pop lyrics – perhaps none of us cares that much – but in the case of insightful Dylan like stuff or even smart and witty Blur like lyrics – our cultural sensitivities become more acute. I suspect that what seems mundane and banal to one generation might be more interesting and insightful to the next – what do we think about “blue suede shoes”? But that’s taking a historic perspective – outside the life of a copyright – well that’s another discussion! In the end the destiny of lyrics, ought to be a decision for the artist and his publisher and not just the kids – but you know – “the kids are alright”! And – at the moment – this industry does need to do everything it can to woo them back to being interested in commercially released music – instead of almost anything else like games, videos, sport, fashion, food, sex, drugs, – and then oh yes – local gigs, bands their mates are in, loops and mixes they’re throwing together themselves, indie bands from previous eras whose recordings are now commercially unavailable, aaah – now that’s what you call a long tail!

It is quite amazing how blind the industry still is to the extent of its need to transform itself.

Seasons greetings pop pickers!


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