Music site Genius sues Google, claiming it caught the company 'red-handed' copying lyrics

Key Points
  • In a new lawsuit, Genius claims Google and Canada-based lyric licensing company LyricFind misappropriated lyrics from its website.
  • Genius claims in the suit that it found a digital watermark it created in Google's lyric boxes displayed at the top of search results, which are provided through LyricFind. Google and LyricFind have previously disputed wrongdoing.
  • The lawsuit comes as Google faces scrutiny from federal and state investigators over its behavior toward competitors.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai
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In a new lawsuit, music site Genius Media claims it caught Google "red-handed" copying lyrics for its own benefit at the expense of Genius' business.

Genius claims Google and Canada-based lyric licensing company LyricFind misappropriated lyrics from its website. Genius alleges that Google, through LyricFind, displayed lyrics at the top of search results in its "Information Boxes" that were stripped directly from Genius without attribution. Genius is seeking at least $50 million in combined damages from the companies, according to the lawsuit, filed in state court in Brooklyn.

The lawsuit adds to a an already noisy field of Google critics who claim the company employs anti-competitive practices to keep users on its own sites instead of sending them directly to those providing the content. Yelp has been among the loudest voices alleging Google favors its own search services over competitors' and stunts web traffic to other sites with its text boxes that serve users key information on their own search pages.

Google's treatment of competitive services is likely to become a focus for federal and state investigators probing the company for potential antitrust violations. State attorneys general investigating Google are planning to expand their probe beyond its original focus on advertising into search, CNBC reported last month.

After suspecting Google was ripping off its transcriptions, the complaint says, Genius placed a digital watermark in its lyrics made up of different styles of apostrophes that spelled out "red-handed" in Morse Code. If Google's lyric boxes contained the watermark, the suit claims, "there would be no explanation other than that the lyrics were copied from Genius's website, e.g., by using the copy/paste functionality or a computer program."

After notifying Google that it had found its watermarks in its lyric boxes, Genius alleges multiple Google executives said they were looking into the issue but would not explain how the watermark showed up in its results. Genius designed a second experiment in 2018 to determine how widespread the issue had become, applying the watermark to a random sample of songs. Of the 271 songs to which Genius applied the watermark and that appeared in Google's info box between October and December of that year, 43% "showed clear evidence of matching" the watermark, according to the complaint.

In response to a request for comment, a Google spokesperson pointed to a June blog post explaining how the company provides lyrics in its info boxes. Google claims in the post that it licenses lyrics from third parties when music publishers don't have digital copies of the text. The company pledged to add third party attribution for digital lyrics and have its lyrics partner ensure it was following industry standards.

"We do not crawl or scrape websites to source these lyrics," Google wrote at the time. "The lyrics that you see in information boxes on Search come directly from lyrics content providers, and they are updated automatically as we receive new lyrics and corrections on a regular basis."

The post followed a Wall Street Journal report where Genius first went public with its claims against Google. The complaint alleges this was the first time Google had tried to "to address their misappropriation of content from Genius's website."

LyricFind did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but the company wrote in a June blog post responding to the original Journal story that it does not knowingly copy content from Genius. LyricFind said its content teams often begin with a copy of lyrics from "numerous sources" and then corrects them. After Genius notified LyricFind that it believed Genius lyrics were coming up in its database, LyricFind asked its content team not to consult Genius as a source "[a]s a courtesy." LyricFind suggested the content team may have "unknowingly sourced Genius lyrics from another location" where they were also available.

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