A federal judge dismissed Genius Media Group’s lawsuit against Google and LyricFind alleging the companies ripped off song lyrics from Genius — ruling that Genius doesn’t have standing to sue them, since it doesn’t own the rights to the original lyrics.
The Genius lawsuit, filed last December, had sought at least $50 million in damages from Google and LyricFind. In a ruling Monday, Judge Margo K. Brodie of the U.S. Court for the Eastern District of New York sided with the plaintiffs.
Brodie found that Genius’ lyric transcriptions are derivative works of the original lyrics, which are protected under Copyright Law. However, Genius doesn’t have the ability to sue for copyright infringement because “the case law is clear that only the original copyright owner has exclusive rights to authorize derivative works,” she wrote in the decision.
The judge then considered whether under Genius’ state law claims, there was an “extra element” to give it standing to sue Google and LyricFind for breach of contract — and Brodie found there wasn’t.
Genius had accused LyricFind and Google of breach of contract, based on the theory that the companies had violated Genius’ Terms of Service by “scraping” its lyrics. However, Genius “fails to allege breach of contract claims that are qualitatively different from federal copyright claims,” and therefore the Copyright Act preempts those claims, the judge ruled.
The core of Genius’ breach-of-contract argument “is a claim that Defendants created an unauthorized reproduction of Plaintiff’s derivative work, which is itself conduct that violates an exclusive right of the copyright owner under federal copyright law,” Brodie wrote.
The Genius lawsuit also accused LyricFind of “unjust enrichment” by lifting Genius-generated lyrics, but those claims also are preempted “because they fall within the scope of the Copyright Act,” according to Brodie’s opinion. Furthermore, the judge ruled, Genius’ unfair competition claims against Google and LyricFind are preempted by the Copyright Act.
Brodie’s ruling dismissed the Genius’ lawsuit for “failure to state a claim” and denied the company’s motion to remand the case to state court.
In response last year to the Genius lawsuit, Toronto-based LyricFind had pointed out that Genius has no ownership of the lyric rights — which belong to music publishers and songwriters.
Asked for comment on the judge’s ruling, a Google rep pointed to a blog post from last year, in which it said it ensures songwriters are paid for their creative work because Google pays music publishers “for the right to display lyrics, since they manage the rights to these lyrics on behalf of the songwriters.” Google says it obtains its lyrics content from third-party providers like LyricFind.
In its lawsuit, Genius said it estimated that approximately 40% of lyrics for new music displayed in Google’s search results included lyrics “that are being unlawfully misappropriated from Genius’s website.”
As described in its lawsuit, Genius altered the lyrics on its site with a “watermarking” technique that replaced the apostrophes in a selection of newly released songs with a pattern of curly and straight apostrophes that spelled out “red-handed” in Morse code. About 43% of the modified lyrics, including the hidden message, subsequently showed up in Google searches from October-December 2018, according to Genius. After a Wall Street Journal article was published about the dispute, Google stopped surfacing lyrics with Genius’s original watermark, according to the lawsuit. But then Genius devised a second watermark in August 2019 to spell out the word “genius” in Morse code — and, according to the company, Google search results continued to include lyrics with the Genius-coded text.