Apparently, it’s illegal to post song lyrics on the internet

Several years after music publishers began pursuing websites that published lyrics on the Web without permission, they may have their biggest payoff yet. A recent court judgment against LiveUniverse makes it crystal clear: hosting an unauthorized lyrics site can get you in serious legal trouble.

LiveUniverse.com and its owner Brad Greenspan were slapped with a $6.6 million default judgment by a Los Angeles federal judge this week for running a lyrics site that didn’t pay for a license from music publishers. That’s $12,500 per song for the 528 songs whose lyrics he was accused of infringing.

Those songs include “China Girl” by David Bowie; “Moondance” by Van Morrison; “(Don’t Go Chasing) Waterfalls” performed by TLC; “Wake Me Up When September Ends” by Green Day; “Old Time Rock ‘n Roll” performed by Bob Seger; and “Georgia on My Mind” performed by Ray Charles.

The 528 songs were chosen as representative songs for the litigation from the catalogs of the music publisher plaintiffs: Peermusic, Bug Music, and Warner Chappell Music.

Greenspan went through a “revolving door” of attorneys, often failed to comply with the court’s instructions, and sometimes failed to show up to depositions and key hearings, according to Ross Charap and Paul Fakler, the Arent Fox lawyers representing the music publishers who sued Greenspan.

“He engaged in serial misconduct, and refused to pay the court sanctions,” said Fakler. “Towards the end he would show up, and have either a new lawyer, or no lawyer.”

That’s what ultimately led to the default judgment. The court docket shows Greenspan’s last lawyer withdrew from the case in August 2011. The LiveUniverse.com site was taken down around the end of 2010, said Charap.

There are thousands of lyrics sites, and many of them remain unlicensed. Music publishers started pursuing these sites several years ago, and now, Charap said, they’re starting to see some real revenue come from online businesses who have taken licenses. “This is an important new stream of revenue for publishers. They got nothing from it five or six years ago, and now they get tens of millions of dollars.”

Charap hopes that a big judgment against LiveUniverse will ramp up efforts to complete the licensing, at least for US sites.

“The sites that are offshore say, ‘I’m immune from suit, so I’m not going to bother taking a license,’” he said. “The intent here was to persuade all the sites based here [in the US] to take licenses, to try to persuade ISPs to tell their customers to be lawful, and to persuade advertisers not to be on these [unlicensed] sites.”

Many more sites started taking licenses once lawsuits began to be filed, added Fakler. A typical license for a lyrics site involves paying 50 percent of revenue to music publishers and songwriters. This payment is based on the number of views particular songs get, so writers of hit songs will tend to earn the majority of that income.

It’s unclear how quickly the plaintiffs will be able to collect their money, but Greenspan should be able pay. He was an investor in MySpace who still owned a significant chunk of the company when it was sold to News Corp. for $580 million in 2005.

While users who post lyrics on sites may feel like it’s a harmless act, the sites themselves aren’t harmless, said Charap. They’re making serious advertising revenue, and ripping off songwriters and publishers. Unlike recording artists, songwriters only make money off licensing their songs to others.

“These sites are making hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars a year, on the backs of people who write this music and own this music,” said Charap.

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