Feds Urge Supreme Court To Skip Lawsuit Pitting Genius Against Google Over Song Lyrics
The U.S. Department of Justice is urging the U.S. Supreme Court to avoid a case alleging Google stole millions of song lyrics from the music database Genius, calling it a “poor vehicle” for a high court showdown.
Genius — a platform that lets users add and annotate lyrics — wants the justices to revive its lawsuit, which claims that Google improperly used the site’s carefully-transcribed content for its search results, after the case was dismissed by a lower court last year.
But in a brief filed Tuesday (May 23), the U.S. Solicitor General told the Supreme Court to steer clear. It said the case was a “poor vehicle” for reviewing the issues in the case, and that the lower court did not appear to have done anything particularly novel when it dismissed the case against Google.
“In the view of the United States, the petition for a writ of certiorari should be denied,” the government wrote.
Genius sued the tech giant in 2019, claiming Google had stolen the site’s carefully-transcribed content for its own “information boxes” in search results, essentially free-riding on the “time, labor, systems and resources” that go into creating such a service. In a splashy twist, Genius said it had used a secret code buried within lyrics that spelled out REDHANDED to prove Google’s wrongdoing.
Though it sounds like a copyright case, Genius didn’t actually accuse Google of stealing any intellectual property. That’s because it doesn’t own any; songwriters and publishers own the rights to lyrics, and both Google and Genius pay for the same licenses to display them. Instead, Genius argued it had spent time and money transcribing and compiling “authoritative” versions of lyrics, and that Google had breached the site’s terms of service by “exploiting” them without permission.
But in March, that distinction proved fatal for Genius. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit dismissed the case, ruling that only the actual copyright owners — songwriters or publishers — could have filed such a case, not a site that merely transcribed the lyrics. In technical terms, the court said the case was “preempted” by federal copyright law, meaning that the accusations from Genius were so similar to a copyright claim that they could only have been filed that way.
In taking the case to the Supreme Court, Genius argued the ruling would be a disaster for websites that spend time and money to aggregate user-generated content online. Such companies should be allowed to protect that effort against clear copycats, the company said, even if they don’t hold the copyright. “Big-tech companies like Google don’t need any assists from an overly broad view of copyright preemption,” the company wrote.
Such petitions are always a long shot since the Supreme Court takes less than 2% of the 7,000 cases it receives each year. But in December, the justices asked the DOJ to weigh in on whether it should take the Genius case.
In Tuesday’s filing, the DOJ said firmly that it should not — arguing, among other things, that the lower court’s ruling for Google had been largely correct. Though the agency had quibbles with some of the lower court’s analysis, it said Genius was essentially using contract law to claim the same rights as a copyright owner — the exact scenario in which such claims can be “preempted” by federal law.
“In substance, petitioner asserts a right to prevent commercial copying of its lyric transcriptions by all persons who gain access to them, without regard to any express manifestation of consent by website visitors,” the agency wrote.
The Supreme Court will now decide whether or not to hear the case; a decision on that question should arrive in the next several months. A spokesperson for Genius did not immediately return a request for comment on the DOJ’s filing.
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