A question about lyrics

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  • Is it legal for a website to contain full lyrics? I can only assume that it must be, as a simple Google search shows tons of lyrics sites that have been running for years. I thought they might be outside of the US, but so far none are.

    How exactly is this legal? As far as I can gather it it works as such:

    These websites are essentially "libraries" full of lyrics, and thus, since they offer the material for free and to all, they qualify as "fair use." As I gather from their simple disclaimers, they are falling under clause 1 of fair use: "the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes."

    Is this analogy correct? If not, how haven't these sites been shut down?

    Assuming they are legal, how is it that they are allowed to place banner ads on their sites? Is it because they are not making money directly off the lyrics, but rather off their presence? I'm not quite sure how this one flies with most companies.

    If anyone has had any personal experience dealing with this sort of an issue, I'd love it if you posted. I've been hunting around trying to find more information regarding the topic, but most of it is extremely inconclusive.
  • Depends on who you ask. ^_^ Most music publishers apparently do not believe that those lyric sites are legal, and some have been shut down. I do not know of any situations that have gone to court, however.
  • I don't think that this analogy is correct, or at least not complete. Offering material for free an to all does not, by itself, qualify as fair use. The disclaimer you mention is one factor in a four-factor fair use analysis. You can see a handy guide for performing a complete fair use analysis on this website's home page. One thing that this form doesn't mention is that while in theory all four factors are equal, in practice some are more equal than others. Education is an important component, but it seems like the most important factor is the last, basically the effect on the market.

    We often talk about how we interpret the law. That's important. But it's also important to consider what copyright holders might think or feel about your actions. In this case, whether or not you determined that the use was fair (and it might be), think about the effect on the market. Is anyone selling access to lyrics, or, say, a lyrics database? Is access to the lyrics likely to affect sales of sheet music or of recordings? Personally, I think that any affect on sales is likely to be minor but positive. Likewise, I think that publicity from suing over this is likely to negatively impact sales.

    Publishers, music or otherwise, often do not follow the same train of reasoning as I do, so I think it's not wise to count on this post to determine future actions. However, it might be one reason why lyrics databases have lasted as long as they have.

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