Publishers want sites to pay for song lyrics, and they have a point

Should anyone be free to publish song lyrics? Not if the National Music Publishers Association gets its way: the publishers are warning 50 websites, including high-flying Rap Genius, to take the lyrics down or get a license — or face a copyright lawsuit. [Update: Rap Genius has reportedly agreed to a license from Sony.]

As Billboard reported, the sites in the copyright crosshairs are those named in an October paper by David Lowery, a musician and academic who is a vocal anti-piracy advocate. He said the sites “generate huge traffic” and that the “lyric business is clearly more valuable in the Internet age.”

I normally treat Lowery, who has made considerable mischief over Pandora(s p) and Spotify, with a big grain of salt. But in this case he has a point.

Just as commercial sites can’t publish copyrighted poems without permission — US copyright law protects all fixed, original artistic works — they can’t simply help themselves to song lyrics (indeed, I recall Paul Simon’s “Sounds of Silence” being included in my high school poetry anthology).

The devil, of course, will be in the details. Will the publishers and the lyrics sites be able to agree at a reasonable rate? Or will the publishers make outrageous licensing demands and simply force the sites out of business — to the detriment of the vibrant fan and artistic communities.

For Simon & Garfunkle fans, here’s (a licensed version) of Sounds of Silence: