The end of free lyrics?

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Something interesting happened to albums in the mid-60s. (No, not double-album covers and their utilitarian use.) With artists such as Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and Leonard Cohen singing about something other than teen angst, words began to matter. So much so that record labels started including printed lyrics with LPs. That trend continued with cassettes and CDs where the packaging of each often included elaborate fold-out booklets to accommodate the artist’s words.

Yet with today’s digital downloads, lyrics are the exception. A very few high-profile albums sold by the iTunes Store include digital booklets that offer lyrics, liner notes, and photos. Given that, where do those who care about lyrics find them?

The Internet, of course. Yet search for song lyrics and odds are you’ll be presented with countless websites that are either long on flashing Web ads and short on content or force you to dig down through multiple pages to finally find the lyrics you’re after.

And then along comes LyricWiki, a terrific resource for grabbing lyrics without the ads and dead-ends. Just type a song title, artist, or album into LyricWiki’s Search field and a list of Google hits appears on a subsequent page. Click an appropriate link and the lyrics appear without the advertising cruft. Better yet, thanks to the LyricWiki API, programmers could create desktop and mobile applications that retrieved lyrics from LyricWiki without the need for a Web browser.

At least it did. According to a post by LyricWiki’s creator, Sean Colombo, the major publishers demanded that programmatic access to LyricWiki’s collection of lyrics be shut off. Rather than face the wrath of those publishers, Colombo complied with the request.

Those who have created desktop applications and scripts based on the LyricWiki API—1stDream with its iClip Lyrics and Doug Adams with his Lyrics Via LyricWiki v2.0 AppleScript—have found ways around this limitation. iPhone developers, regrettably, have not.

Search for lyrics apps at the App Store and you’ll see countless complaints about applications that no longer work. And they no longer work because of this restriction. As someone who used one of these applications routinely, I’m disappointed, but understand that this is the developers’ fault only to the extent that they relied on a resource with questionable longevity.

What made it questionable is the nature of lyrics and their value to their owners. Lyrics, like music and movies, are intellectual property. They are copyrighted and those who create them are often paid for doing so. The fact that they were (and remain) freely available on the Internet doesn’t mean that the owners have abrogated their right to them, only that they haven’t been particularly concerned about enforcing that right.

Colombo suggests that these iPhone developers attempt to cut their own licensing deals with the rights holders. To them I offer a hearty “Good luck with that” because I believe we’re seeing the beginning of lyrics as a viable asset to music publishers and something they’ll take far more care to protect.

What leads me to that belief is the rumored Cocktail and CMX initiatives. According to the Financial Times, Apple has engaged with EMI, Sony Music, Warner Music, and Universal Music Group to bundle interactive booklets with album downloads from the iTunes Store. Unlike the PDF digital booklets bundled with a few albums, these interactive booklets will be more broadly available and, along with lyrics, photos, and liner notes, include interactive elements (possibly playing albums outside the iTunes environment). Meanwhile, according to The Guardian, the record companies are at work on a competing standard called CMX, which will offer the same sort of capabilities.

If and when these initiatives kick in, how likely are the music publishers to give lyrics away when they’re one more reason to purchase the album rather than the single? Odds are, not very.

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