Hopefully, it comes as no surprise to anyone that song lyrics are protected by copyright law. Song lyrics are protected whether or not they are registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. They are protected whether they are used with or without an accompanying melody.
Websites offering song lyrics without permission are violating copyright laws and exposing themselves to claims of copyright infringement. Of course, IF you’re displaying the lyrics in a manner that qualifies as fair use, you’re not violating any copyright laws. But, like most fair use questions, that’s a big, shaky, and potentially messy “IF”.
On a growing world wide web where infringement is not uncommon, music publishers must choose which battles to fight and may target only the largest violators; those websites offering massive lyric databases. Smaller websites with less traffic and offering only small snatches of lyrics may be able to operate under the music publishers’ radar.
For websites that want to display lyrics legally, services like LyricFind and GraceNote offer an option worthy of consideration. These companies do not give individual online users direct access to the lyrics. Instead, they license the use of searchable song lyrics databases to businesses that integrate the databases into their own websites. Those businesses can then offer their visitors to their websites the option of searching and viewing lyrics.
Popular websites that use these databases include Allmusic.com and Rhapsody Online which use the LyricFind service and Yahoo! Music which uses Gracenote. LyricFind has licensed song lyrics from over 1,700 music publishers and offers the lyrics to hundreds of thousands of songs in its database. Gracenote, which began offering lyrics display as a new service only this year, has about 400,000 songs in its database.
And if you’re a songwriter seeking greater exposure for your work, you can register online for LyricFind and have the lyrics to your songs included in its database.
(Thanks to Miguel Harvey, J.D. Candidate 2009, Georgetown University Law Center, who provided research assistance for this posting.)