Genius Media Group was pretty clever when it used digital watermarks to show that Google had been copying its huge collection of song lyrics. One of those watermarks spelled “redhanded” in Morse code. That Google was caught lifting another site’s song lyrics made international news — and even merited a mention during Congress’ Big Tech hearing late last month. But was Google’s scraping illegal? On Monday, a New York federal judge dismissed claims by Genius. From a report: Genius doesn’t own copyrights to the song lyrics. Those rights belong to publishers and songwriters. Genius does have a license to the song lyrics in question. Additionally, Genius spends a lot of time and millions of dollars facilitating collaborative lyric transcription. Can’t it protect its sweat? Genius believed so. Genius prohibits its users from transmitting its transcriptions for commercial purpose. Google breached the Terms of Service, claimed a complaint filed in New York state court. After the case was filed last December, Google had it removed to federal court on the basis that Genius’ state claims were preempted.
As federal court provides the exclusive jurisdiction for copyright controversies, the initial question in this case was whether Genius was doing anything more than disguising copyright claims. That’s the subject of a new 36-page opinion from U.S. District Court Judge Margo Brodie. There’s little doubt that the transcribed song lyrics fit within the types of works protected by the Copyright Act and thus satisfy subject matter of a preempted claim. However, under precedent, state contract claims over what’s typically regarded as intellectual property can nevertheless survive so long as there’s an “extra element” at play. That could be contractual obligations that are qualitatively different from a copyright claim. Here, Brodie rejects the proposition that Genius’ attempt to guard against scraping for profit constitutes an extra element.