The lyric website Rap Genius recently made headlines after pulling in a $15 million venture capital investment. But sometimes getting ink isn’t always a good thing—especially when your business is based on flouting copyright law. A recent study by David Lowery of the University of Georgia (and the alt-rock band Campter Van Beethoven) has compiled a list of the top fifty most “undesirable lyric websites,” which is shorthand for what DigitalMusicNews calls the “most illegal” lyric sites on the Internet—with Rap Genius topping the list.
So what is Rap Genius, and what’s the issue? Well, if you’ve ever wanted to know the lyrics of a particular song, Google can point you to any dozens of sites purporting to let you know just what’s being sung, though you’ll probably have to wade through countless banner and pop-up ads, and maybe more than a few alerts from your anti-virus software about the malicious nature of the site.
Rap Genius takes that model and mixes it with Wikipedia, allowing users and artists to annotate and comment on songs’ various lyrics. The idea is a good one, and it actually has the potential to elevate the conversation about modern music to a scholarly level—but at the moment, the site doesn’t seem to be registered with the National Music Publishers’ Association (NMPA), and is displaying copyrighted lyrics on pages from which it earns money through advertisements. That’s kind of a problem, and cuts any kind of argument the site might have about “fair use” off at the knees. According to a post on Pitchfork, the NMPA has filed a take-down notice against every one of the fifty sites, including Rap Genius.
In response, one of the site’s founders, Ilan Zechory, emailed the New York Times with a response to the take-down notice and the allegations being leveled against Rap Genius:
“The lyrics sites the N.M.P.A. refers to simply display song lyrics, while Rap Genius has crowdsourced annotations that give context to all the lyrics line by line, and tens of thousands of verified annotations directly from writers and performers. These layers of context and meaning transform a static, flat lyric page into an interactive, vibrant art experience created by a community of volunteer scholars.”
That’s all great—but, as the article points out, if you’re not registered with the NMPA to reprint copyrighted material and you profit off it, you’re pretty blatantly breaking the law. Now, there’s no question that Rap Genius is flush with cash with that aforementioned $15 million venture capital investment. How much would it cost to purchase licenses through the NMPA to continue operating legally? We might find out in the next few days and weeks as Rap Genius figures out how to move forward.