Pared lyrics

Walter Ritter is the developer behind pearlyrics, a nifty little Dashboard widget. It did one simple but very useful thing: It searched the Internet for the lyrics to the song you were playing in iTunes, displayed those lyrics on the Dashboard, and copied them into the song’s iTunes Lyrics field. It certainly wasn’t the only lyrics widget out there, but it’s the one that several of us here at Macworld liked.

Unfortunately, pearlyrics is no more. Last week, Ritter received a letter from Warner Chappell Music—“one of the world’s largest music publishers,” its Web site proudly proclaims—telling him to cease and desist. Being a modest freeware developer with no legal budget, he did.

As I say, there are plenty of lyrics widgets out there. Ritter has heard of only one other developer who’s received a similar cease-and-desist letter. So big whoop, you say, a couple of minor-league widget-makers must turn their hands to something else. But I think it’s weird: Why is one of the world’s largest music publishers bothering to go after a couple of lowly widget makers?

I tried to ask Warner Chappell, but the company didn’t return multiple calls over several days last week. I did get in touch with Fred von Lohmann, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and he has a theory. This may just be “a dry run for a much broader campaign in New Year.” The target of that campaign? Web sites that publish music lyrics.

And von Lohmann isn’t just being paranoid. The Music Publishers’ Association has said it wants to crack down on lyrics sites. MPA President Lauren Keiser recently told the BBC that he wants to do more than just shut down those sites; he thinks that, if the people who run them were facing “some jail time, I think we’ll be a little more effective.”

Google “music lyrics,” and you get 3 million-plus hits. Now, many of those sites are run by fans who have painstakingly transcribed the words to their favorite songs by their favorite artists. But others are impersonal megasites that use the lure of lyrics to put millions of eyeballs in front of ads. It’s the latter bunch that Warner Chappell et al. may really be after. As von Lohmann puts it, “It smacks of the Google Print situation: If someone is making a nickel off your work, you want four cents, even if you weren’t making any money off it before.”

In its cease-and-desist letter to Ritter, Warner Chappell specifically cited the recent Grokster case as the basis for its action. In that case (which von Lohmann argued), the Supreme Court allowed the entertainment industry to sue providers of peer-to-peer software for the copyright infringements of that software’s users. In other words, if you build a tool that someone uses to commit a crime, you’re liable. Sure, pearlyrics searches publicly available lyrics databases. But, because those databases may violate copyrights, publishers can go after the search tool.

That still leaves several questions unanswered: Why pearlyrics and not other lyrics widgets? Why not go directly after the lyrics sites that (publishers think) are actually violating their copyrights? And, for users like you and me: Why can’t I download lyrics to the music I’ve already bought? If I buy a CD, I get a lyrics sheet. Why can’t I get the same thing for music I buy legally online? iTunes has that lyrics field ever since version 5: How else am I supposed populate it, unless I use a tool like pearlyrics?

Answers to those questions, and others, will, I hope, be coming soon.

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