By John Seay, Atlanta Entertainment Lawyer: The Seay Firm LLC (@TheSeayFirmLLC)
The following article was inspired by, and borrows from, a study by University of Georgia professor and musician (Camper Van Beethoven, Cracker), David Lowery.
I’m notoriously awful with song lyrics. Even for some of my favorite songs, there’s that awkward moment when I’m singing along in public and inevitably have to mumble my way through sometimes an entire verse. I can sing the guitar and bass parts impeccably, but for whatever reason it takes serious concentration for me to fully commit a song’s lyrics to memory. Which is why I often resort to lyric databases online. I’m sure you know the drill: open Google, type in “lyrics to ‘Benny and the Jets'” and press search.
But for as many times as I’ve resorted to lyric databases online, I’ve only dimly acknowledged that the sites I’m visiting might be posting those lyrics without the proper licenses. As you probably know by now, a song is divided into two copyrights. The copyright in the sound recording and the copyright in the musical composition. And as you might have guessed by now if you didn’t already know, the copyright in the musical composition includes not only the melody of the song, but also the lyrics.
Lyrics are protected by copyright law just as much as the actual sound recording is. If you wanted to, for example, print a book of the lyrics of your favorite songs, you’d need the appropriate licenses from the various performance rights organizations (PROs) like BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC. The same thing applies to websites that post the lyrics to your favorite songs. Technically, those websites need to obtain licenses from the appropriate PROs before posting lyrics online. In practice though, very few sites are properly licensed.
Should you care? After all, you’re just quickly perusing the lyrics to maybe settle an argument with a friend. Does it feel like the songwriter should get compensated for that? I mean, all these sites are doing is saving you the time from having to carefully listen to the song yourself. It’s not like you would ever chose to pay for access to lyrics. Well, those might be decently compelling arguments were it not for the fact that many, if not all, of those unlicensed lyric sites sell advertisements – and sometimes those advertisements are even matched to specific demographics based on the song lyrics. What kind of products would someone who Googles “lyrics to Benny and the Jets” likely buy? Mohair suits?
If someone is making money, and maybe even a fair bit of money, by placing advertisements on pages featuring copyright protected song lyrics, shouldn’t some or even most of that money go back to the songwriter? In the ideal situation, you’d still be able to visit those sites for free, and a portion of the advertising money would go back to the PRO and then to the songwriter. The good news is that some sites are going about their businesses in the correct manner, and (at least we think) have properly licensed their content. Which, as an added bonus, means that the lyrics should be 100% accurate, unlike some of the other lyric sites I’ve visited in the past. Here’s a list of the Good Guys:
As always, feel free to contact us if you have any questions or comment below.