Court Dismisses Genius Media’s Suit Against Google

On Monday, Eastern District of New York Judge Margo K. Brodie dismissed Genius Media Group, Inc.’s complaint for failure to state a claim against the defendants, Google, LLC and LyricFind, Inc. The 2019 case arose when the plaintiff, a digital media company, whose  primary service is the “development and maintenance of … annotated music lyrics,” accused the defendants of misappropriating song lyrics from its website.

Defendant LyricFind, Inc. is a Canadian company that maintains a database of music lyrics. Both LyricFind and the plaintiff “license lyrics for display and distribution from music publishers.” Defendant Google owns and operates the internet’s principal search engine. Together, the defendants made an agreement whereby LyricFind provides lyrics to Google for use in its search results.

The plaintiff contended that both LyricFind and Google lifted content from its user-generated lyric library, created by “music enthusiasts who transcribe music lyrics.” The content, it argued, was then used by the defendants for their “own financial benefit and to Plaintiff’s financial detriment.”

The plaintiff brought state law claims for breach of contract, unfair competition under both California statutory law and New York common law, and unjust enrichment. Judge Brodie disposed of the action on the basis that all claims were preempted by the Copyright Act.

The plaintiff argued that “the creation, curation, and provision of timely and accurate music lyrics transcriptions … is not protected by the Copyright Act.” The court disagreed, finding that the subject matter, song lyrics, are among the types of works protected by the Copyright Act because they involve work “within the subject matter of copyright.”

With the first prong of the two-part preemption test easily met, the court turned to the second. It considered whether the state law claims’ “extra elements transform an otherwise equivalent claim into one that is qualitatively different from a copyright claim.” The court noted that the pivotal question is “what the plaintiff seeks to protect, the theories in which the matter is thought to be protected and the rights sought to be enforced.”

As to the plaintiff’s breach of contract claims, the court held that they “are nothing more than claims seeking to enforce the copyright owners’ exclusive rights to protection from unauthorized reproduction of the lyrics and are therefore preempted by the Copyright Act.” Similarly, Genius Media’s unjust enrichment claims were discarded because “the enrichment element does not suffice to shield an unjust enrichment claim from preemption when the claim arises from unauthorized use of a copyrighted work.”

The plaintiff’s state law unfair competition claims also failed. According to the court, Genius Media’s “‘reverse passing off’ claims, [] that Defendants copied Plaintiff’s work product — song lyrics displayed on its website — and attempted to pass them off as either, in LyricFind’s case, its own work product or, in Google’s case, either its own work product or work product it was licensed to display,” did not pass muster.

The plaintiff also argued that additional elements in the New York and California law claims rendered them safe from preemption. The court held that this was not so, finding that the elements did not alter the fundamental nature of the claims sufficiently to remove them from the Copyright Act’s reach. Because the plaintiff asserted no federal law claims, and all its state law claims were preempted by the Copyright Act, the Court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim.

Genius Media is represented by Pryor Cashman, Google by Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, and LyricFind by Freundlich Law.