January 20, 1999 12:40 PM PST

Lyrics posted on Net come under fire

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Music hobbyists take note: the years-old practice of posting lyrics and song charts on the Net may land you in legal hot water.

The latest example of this now-familiar maxim is the International Lyrics Server, a Web site hosted in Switzerland that, until last week, posted the words to some 100,000 songs. The site is temporarily shuttered, claiming that "14 police officers from the cantons of Basel and Zurich arrived simultaneously at the apartments of two of our team and our Internet service provider (ISP). They took all they could find related" to the Web site.

Representatives from the site were not available to comment, but according to the National Music Publishers Association, the action was prompted by a criminal complaint filed by its licensing arm, the Harry Fox Agency, on behalf of eight individual music publishers. Harry Fox has been instrumental in shutting down similar sites, including the Online Guitar Archive last June.

Back in the days when the Internet was a free-wheeling medium used mostly by hobbyists and academics, Netizens posted songs, music charts, and other information about music with little thought about copyright implications. Now that major music publishers are calling the Net home as well, however, hobbyists who post copyrighted materials without permission can face stiff legal consequences, attorneys warn.

"What they're doing is not permitted," said Elliot Brown, a lawyer with Irell & Manella. "They are engaged in massive copying of copyrighted materials. It acts as a market substitute for the original."

Part of the fault, however, lies with the publishing industry for not making it easier for Web site operators to license sheet music, says Bob Kohn, author of Kohn on Music Licensing, a book that is regarded by many in the industry as an authority on the matter. While there are streamlined ways for people to obtain licenses to perform copyrighted songs in public or cover them in recordings, there is no equivalent for lyrics or sheet music, he pointed out.

Online lyrics and sheet music sites "are valuable services that consumers want, but unfortunately, there's no easy mechanism for commercial businesses on the Internet to efficiently obtain the licenses they require to put up lyrics," Kohn said. "The new technology has come along, and the traditional industry needs to catch up."

The Harry Fox Agency, for its part, said that the problem stems from Web site operators, who frequently ignore requests to negotiate a license. Actions such as the one taken against the International Lyrics Server are "the only recourse left to our publisher members and their songwriter partners," the group said in a statement. It added that the lawyers from Harry Fox tried to negotiate a license with the Web site, but that representatives refused.

Clouding the issue in many instances is whether the copying is excused under the "fair use" exemptions of the federal Copyright Act. Under that doctrine, it is permissible to reproduce copyrighted material without permission in limited situations, such as in news stories or scholarly articles. A number of factors are considered in determining fair use, such as what proportion of the total work is copied and whether it is used for commercial or nonprofit purposes.

Operators of some music sites have said that it takes substantial effort to figure out exactly what words or chords are used in a song and then to render them in a "tablature" or lyric sheet. Such considerations, they argue, figure strongly in their fair use claims.

But Harry Fox president Edward Murphy rebuffed those arguments in the statement, saying: "It is recognized in virtually every copyright law around the world...that only the copyright owners have the right to make and distribute copies of their works, including the lyrics."

 

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