Genius Media Group Accuses Google of Misappropriating Lyrics in $50m Suit

On December 3, plaintiff Genius Media Group Inc. filed a complaint against Google LLC and LyricFind (Genius Media Group Inc. v. Google LLC and LyricFind 526241/2019) for content misappropriation. Genius Media Group is represented Pryor Cashman. The complaint was filed in the New York State, Kings County, Supreme Court.

Genius Media Group is a digital media music company that develops and maintains an annotated music lyric library. The complaint alleged that Google and LyricFind have misappropriated the content in Genius’ website and music lyric library.

Music artists, publishers, or songwriters typically do not maintain a lyric transcription library, though in most cases they own the copyright to the lyrics for a song. Genius relies on its users and partnerships with artists to provide lyrics, while it has a license with music publishers to display and distribute these lyrics; they do not receive the transcriptions themselves. Most users find Genius through an internet search, such as a Google search.

When a person types a song and the word ‘lyrics’ into Google, Google’s Information Box, which includes the full song lyrics, is the first thing to appear in the search results. A person has to scroll past all of this to view the first organic search, thus harming sites that appear as organic searches because Google has designed its Information Box in a way that discourages someone from looking past it and searching for other results. The Information Box appears as a piece of larger search features that include Google-owned sites or products, such as watching the music video on YouTube. Further, the complaint stated that Google has “more than 85% of the internet search engine market in the United States in 2018 – a website’s placement on Google’s search engine results pages is a material consideration to both its web traffic and revenue.” Thus, Google financially benefits from a higher placement and inclusion of other Google products and services.

Google makes no effort to verify the accuracy of lyrics that appear in its Information Box and are often inaccurate. The complaint stated:

“[w]hen Genius observed lyrics Information Boxes that were accurate, Genius also observed that the lyrics in those Information Boxes were sometimes identical, on a character-for-character basis, with those displayed on Genius’s website…given the fact that most lyrics are transcribed after listening to the sound recording, it is highly unlikely that another source of lyrics would be a character-for-character match – including punctuation, contractions, and line breaks – with lyrics appearing on Genius’s website, without having been copied from Genius’s website.”

This is especially true for rap and hip-hop songs with intricate lyrics. Desiigner’s song “Panda” was one of the first songs that made Genius think Google may have copied and misappropriated its lyrics because they are an exact copy, down to a character for character level. Genius determined that LyricFind misappropriated the lyrics and licensed them to Google, by looking at lyric sites it knew LyricFind licensed lyrics to and observed an exact match via a digital watermark.

The digital watermark worked by using straight and curly apostrophes to spell out “REDHANDED” in Morse Code. If that appeared, it was clear the lyrics were misappropriated. While Google executives stated they would look into the matter, no explanation was ever given to Genius. According to the complaint, Google is still misappropriating lyrics from Genius. It was not until a Wall Street Journal article was published about the supposed misappropriation that Google took action. Google ensured its commitment to uphold its high standards and changed the Information Box to show the name of the licensing partner that Google used to display the lyrics. Genius provided 21 examples of misappropriation to Google, all but one are attributed to LyricFind. Google also removed the watermark from its Information Boxes after the WSJ article. After the watermark removal, Genius created a second Watermark and used Watermark #1, #2 and both watermarks on lyrics to show that misappropriation had continued, though Google had attempted to cover it up by removing Watermark #1. At the time, Google was not aware that a second Watermark had been made.  

According to the complaint, “Genius estimates that approximately 40% of lyrics for new music displayed in the Information Boxes feature lyrics that are being unlawfully misappropriated from Genius’s website.” Further, “[o]n November 4, 2019, after the Information Box for “Lose You To Love Me” appeared, the click-through rate to Genius for the search query lose you to love me lyrics dropped from 75% to 5%.” Thus, Google not only misappropriated content from Genius, but hindered it financially and diminished traffic to Genius’s website. Due to less traffic on the site, Genius lost advertising revenue.

The complaint alleged that LyricFind breached Genius’s Terms of Service. Genius Media Group seeks to stop Google and LyricFind from content misappropriation and to recover damages from such misappropriation, as well as to end their anticompetitive practices and actions. Genius is looking for at least $50 million for compensation against LyricFind.