Google dodges lawsuit over Genius lyric scraping
Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge
On Tuesday, Google beat back a lawsuit over alleged scraping of song lyrics from Genius, a lyrics and commentary site. A federal judge in the Eastern District of New York found that while the claims of scraping were credible, the scraping did not constitute a copyright violation, and the lawsuit was dismissed as a result.
Genius alleged in December 2019 that Google was lifting its lyrics. The scraping was demonstrated by sneaking a clever text watermark into Genius’ lyrics entries, in one case using a series of apostrophes to spell out “red handed” in Morse code. The watermark subsequently appeared in related Google searches, without a link or attribution to Genius.
Earlier that year, Google published a blog post proclaiming the company does not “crawl or scrape websites to source these lyrics. Instead, the company argued via its blog post that lyrics people come across via information boxes “come directly from lyrics content providers, and they are updated automatically as we receive new lyrics and corrections on a regular basis.”
Judge Margo Brodie argued that despite Genius’ claims, the website isn’t the actual copyright holder, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Although Genius users collected the lyrics, the lyrics themselves still belong to the musicians who wrote them. While Genius effectively licenses the lyrics, adding to them through derivative works (annotations, for example) doesn’t give Genius the necessary ownership over the actual lyrics themselves.
“[The] breach of contract claims are nothing more than claims seeking to enforce the copyright owners’ exclusive rights to protection from unauthorized reproduction of the lyrics,” Brodie wrote in her dismissal.
Brodie continued that the breach of contract argument is also preempted by the Copyright Act, noting that it’s “a claim that [Google] created an unauthorized reproduction of [Genius’] derivative work, which is itself conduct that violates an exclusive right of the copyright owner under federal copyright law.”
Still, Genius isn’t the first website to accuse Google of scraping its data for Google’s own pages. Yelp has long accused Google of stealing their content in search — something that was brought up in a recent antitrust hearing that Google CEO Sundar Pichai attended. Yelp has previously argued that Google was taking away clicks from its website for Google’s own feed. During the hearing, Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) asked Pichai if he believed that to be anti-competitive behavior.
“When I run the company, I’m really focused on giving users what they want,” Pichai answered, evading the question somewhat. “We conduct ourselves to the highest standard.”