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Real Time columnist Jason Fry discusses a new service from Yahoo Music that offers music song lyrics without the threat of spyware. But users can't copy the words, he explains why in this music video filmclip 

The Perils of Online Song Lyrics for music

By JASON FRY found at Monday, May 21, 2007

  Yahoo's New Lyrics Service Is Promising,
Simpsons-Movie-Music-Limited-Donut-Packaging If you prefer to listen to some fun background music

But Why Can't I Copy and Paste the Words?

Ah, rock lyrics. They're for scribbling on notebooks and pondering in math class, pairing with your yearbook photo to cringe about years later, and of course deciphering over headphones with a careful ear and a furrowed brow.

But they're not for copying and pasting. At least not when you get them from Yahoo Music.

Last month Yahoo and Gracenote announced a deal that let Yahoo offer lyrics for hundreds of thousands of songs from the five major music publishers. (Gracenote, in turn, acquired the rights to provide such lyrics from the publishers last year.) If you go to Yahoo Music, you can search for a lyric or click the "Lyrics" tab on many artists' pages.

The results are a bit hit and miss. Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M. results, for example, are limited to cover versions. (Gracenote says licensing is still being worked out with the Jersey rocker.) Wanting to check on a lyric I'd consistently misheard, I looked for Soul Asylum's "Easy Street." It wasn't there, though other sites let me reluctantly reconfirm that the line I'd always heard as "There are no easy answers to the questions we make tough" is, in fact, "There are no easy answers, the questions remain tough." (I like mine better.)

Have you ever searched for song lyrics online? What did you find? Would you pay extra for accurate lyrics? Has the Internet ever helped you solve a lyrical mystery, or clear up any shameful mishearings? (If so, share!) (please mention if you want your commen to appear on the lyrics for music page).

To be fair, hit-and-miss results aren't unexpected for a new service -- Gracenote CEO Craig Palmer says his company and Yahoo worked together to prioritize what to offer first, working around the most-popular songs, and will build from there. And I did find some impressive results -- lots of lyrics from the famously hard-to-decipher Replacements, and Van Halen's "Unchained," which I could never get straight as a kid. Turns out it's "fat city address" and "blue-eyed murder in a Size 5 dress," not well, I never even had a hypothesis. There's a minor mystery solved after a quarter-century.

Song lyrics are one of those things the Internet might have been made for -- any niche artist can have a home, fans' obsessiveness is rewarded, and users can correct each other's mistakes. And the power of search makes song identification feel like magic. Once, you were sunk if a radio station played a song you liked but didn't tell you what it was. Now, all you have to do is scribble down a snatch of the lyric, run it through a search engine, and then buy it. And of course there's the curiosity factor: What are the words to "Louie, Louie," anyway? And are they dirty? (You won't find out on Yahoo Music, because the publisher wants to preserve the mystery. Should you absolutely have to know no, they're not.)

But lyric sites are also an example of how disappointing the Internet can be. The unlicensed lyric sites that dominate search-engine results often perpetuate mistakes; worse, too many of them are put up by people who couldn't care less about music and only want to grab search-engine traffic. Veteran surfers hunt for lyrics warily -- the worst malware infection I've ever had came not from some shameful foray into the Net's red-light district, but from an innocent search for the words to some pop song. So a better way would be welcome.

Gracenote's Mr. Palmer says it took his company about two years to go from discussions with publishers to "getting critical mass" on its lyrics service. The difference between printing lyrics in CD booklets and making them available digitally, he says, is that "the rights shifted from the labels to the publishers -- not a few major labels, but literally dozens to hundreds of publishers that represent literally tens of thousands of entities that own rights" to lyrics.

Licensing was just the beginning, Gracenote says. Few lyrics were available in digital form at all -- most music publishers are just taking their first steps into the online world and had only focused on a few niche usages for digital lyrics, such as karaoke feeds. Gracenote says it recruited its own employees to transcribe foreign versions of Avril Lavigne's "Girlfriend," and consulted everything from liner notes and fan sites to figure out the words to the Beastie Boys' "Paul's Boutique," crammed with references to movies, cartoons, hip-hop and New York City. Eventually, Mr. Palmer says, Gracenote wrote a 30-page stylebook covering everything from capitalization to the difference between choruses and verses and whether or not to transcribe background vocals. And then, of course, Gracenote had to figure out how to get rights holders paid.

The Yahoo model is revenue sharing from advertising; Mr. Palmer says other business models are under discussion as Gracenote negotiates to bring lyrics to music-subscription services, digital-download stores and consumer-electronics makers. The most-obvious customer would be Apple's iTunes, which already has a lyrics tab for each song. Asked about potential deals, Mr. Palmer says that "we have a full pipeline," though he did say he suspects a business deal with a download store would be based around the store paying "cents" out of its profit margins for the right to embed lyrics with a download.

Perhaps before too long you'll buy a song from iTunes or another service and automatically get the lyrics the same way you get the album art. That's great -- that's the way it should work. But until that happens, there's something fundamentally annoying about Yahoo Music's lyrics. And that's the inability to copy them. [Monday addendum: Yes, you can take a screen grab of lyrics from Yahoo Music. But that's beyond less-tech-savvy folks' abilities. And why should anybody have to jump through all those hoops?]

It's not like copyable lyrics aren't already out there -- even when you don't count the spyware traps. Plenty of artists offer lyrics on their own official sites -- I had no trouble finding them for the likes of Mr. Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, Metallica or Gwen Stefani. And I could copy lyrics from their sites with no problem. So if I want to add the lyrics to "If You Can't Rock Me" to that song's metadata in iTunes, I can copy and paste from the Stones' own site, but not from Yahoo Music Rolling Stones.

"If we had our druthers, we wouldn't necessarily add this feature," Ian Rogers, Yahoo Music's general manager, says of the restrictions on copying. "But it's being asked for by the copyright holders."

The music publishers see what Yahoo Music is doing as providing lyrics for reference, and think that should be different from lyrics that are "permanent," in much the same way streaming audio is temporary and digital downloads are permanent. In their view, you shouldn't expect to copy a reference lyric any more than you'd expect to save a stream. Publishers aren't opposed to lyrics that can be copied -- Nicholas Firth, chairman and CEO of BMG Music Publishing, says his company "would like to see as many options available for lyric sites as you can conceive of," provided such sites compensate publishers and artists. But they see copyable lyrics as a different product.

Such distinctions make perfect sense to people contemplating business models in boardrooms, but they're baffling to consumers -- and feel like another music offering fettered with seemingly arbitrary controls. Not everybody visiting Yahoo Music will be looking to subscribe to streams -- consumers may be attracted to the site because it's an excellent reference guide to music. Or they might have found the lyric they're hunting for through a search engine -- though Yahoo is thwarting copying by displaying lyrics as images, which ironically makes it harder for search engines to find those lyrics. (Mr. Rogers says the lyrics have been fed into Yahoo's own search engine, and Yahoo Music has plans to address the problem with other search engines.)

Mr. Palmer views any annoyance users like me may experience as a temporary thing -- lyrics should soon be available in other ways, eliminating the need to copy and paste. "Consumers shouldn't have to go copy and paste these things to get the same experience," he says.

Agreed -- but until then, why expect music fans to parse out sites' business models? Music fans may come to Yahoo Music to find accurate, spyware-free lyrics that they want to paste into the metadata of songs they've acquired legally, only to find they can't do that. When that happens, they'll rail about the music industry and find one of the many alternatives that do allow copying. (Mr. Firth warns that now that a legal lyrics alternative is in place, "we will certainly contemplate taking action against sites that are not paying us or the creators." But I doubt music publishers will ever be able to stamp out every site looking to make a buck off their property.)

Those who hold the rights to song lyrics may, of course, do whatever they wish with their intellectual property. But as with so many Internet-content dust-ups, you wind up asking "Where's the harm?"

To Mr. Firth, it's an easy question -- a lyric copied is a lost sale. He mentioned sheet music as an example of a product whose sales could be impacted, though he warned "don't ask me to measure it," which is fair enough.

But the words to a song aren't a replacement for sheet music -- it takes a skilled ear to transcribe chords, while anybody can write down what words they hear. They certainly aren't a replacement for the song itself, as anyone who's seen a beloved song lyric fall flat when read aloud can attest. And it's risible to suggest that a fan of an artist would be happy with a sheaf of printed-out lyrics instead of a songbook. I used to be a pretty hardcore Springsteen fan, and in researching this story I came across this book: Bruce SpringsteenBruce Springsteen: Songs

 I suppose I could have copied the lyrics in the book from the Boss's own site and printed them out, but I didn't -- I bought the book via Amazon.

Anyone moved to copy a lyric is probably a fan of that song or that artist, a relationship that can be nurtured profitably. (Gracenote's Mr. Palmer raised the issue of bots grabbing up good-quality lyrics, but there are plenty of sources for such harvesting.) Copying lyrics to paste them into my MP3 metadata demands a certain engagement with that music. Printing out lyrics to study while listening to music is a sign of interest, if not devotion. After all, lyrics weren't added to record sleeves and CD booklets out of altruism, but to further the engagement between artist and listener. And so it is here.

This is a small thing, and it may indeed be a temporary problem -- Mr. Rogers counsels patience, saying of the music publishers that "I think right now they're just dipping their toe in the water and getting started." But to too many people, stealing a 99-cent pop song feels like a small thing, too. When an interesting new service arrives hamstrung, positions get hardened in the undeclared war between the music industry and its customers. Publishers are worrying about lost sales. They'd be better off worrying about lost opportunities.

Have you ever searched for song lyrics online? What did you find? Would you pay extra for accurate lyrics? Has the Internet ever helped you solve a lyrical mystery, or clear up any shameful mishearings? (If so, share!) (please mention if you want your commen to appear on the lyrics for music page)


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