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Supreme Court rejects Genius lawsuit claiming Google stole song lyrics

A singer's microphone sitting on a piece of paper displaying musical notes.

Getty Images | BushAlex

The song lyrics website Genius’ allegations that Google “stole” its work in violation of a contract will not be heard by the US Supreme Court. The top US court denied Genius’ petition for certiorari in an order list issued today, leaving in place lower-court rulings that went in Google’s favor.

Genius previously lost rulings in US District Court for the Eastern District of New York and the US Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. In August 2020, US District Judge Margo Brodie ruled that Genius’ claim is preempted by the US Copyright Act. The appeals court upheld the ruling in March 2022.

“Plaintiff’s argument is, in essence, that it has created a derivative work of the original lyrics in applying its own labor and resources to transcribe the lyrics, and thus, retains some ownership over and has rights in the transcriptions distinct from the exclusive rights of the copyright owners… Plaintiff likely makes this argument without explicitly referring to the lyrics transcriptions as derivative works because the case law is clear that only the original copyright owner has exclusive rights to authorize derivative works,” Brodie wrote in the August 2020 ruling.

Google search results routinely display song lyrics via the service LyricFind. Genius alleged that LyricFind copied Genius transcriptions and licensed them to Google.

Brodie found that Genius’ claim must fail even if one accepts the argument that it “added a separate and distinct value to the lyrics by transcribing them such that the lyrics are essentially derivative works.” Since Genius “does not allege that it received an assignment of the copyright owners’ rights in the lyrics displayed on its website, Plaintiff’s claim is preempted by the Copyright Act because, at its core, it is a claim that Defendants created an unauthorized reproduction of Plaintiff’s derivative work, which is itself conduct that violates an exclusive right of the copyright owner under federal copyright law,” Brodie wrote.

Genius alleged breach of website terms

In its August 2022 petition to the Supreme Court, Genius argued that the Copyright Act shouldn’t override its claim that Google breached a contract.

“Like countless Internet businesses, Genius—an online platform for transcribing and annotating song lyrics—insists that visitors agree to its contractual terms as a condition for availing themselves of the benefit of its services,” the company told the Supreme Court. “These terms include the promise not to reproduce the contents of Genius’s platform. Google contractually bound itself to those terms, but, in blatant breach of that contract, Google stole Genius’s labors for its own competing commercial purposes.”

Genius’ petition urged the high court to determine whether the Copyright Act’s preemption clause allows a business “to invoke traditional state-law contract remedies to enforce a promise not to copy and use its content.” Genius argued that “Nothing in the text or history of the Copyright Act suggests that Congress intended to wipe out sacrosanct contract remedies on which businesses have relied for decades to protect activities that are not the subject of copyright law.”

Genius also claimed the ruling against it “threatens to hobble any of thousands of companies that offer value by aggregating user-generated information or other content for which they hold a license but not the copyright. It serves no public purpose—and certainly no purpose that furthers the Copyright Act’s aims—to bar these companies from enforcing their contracts so that behemoths like Google can vacuum up content and increase their internet dominance.”

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