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Nice Guys Finish Last

Naveen Sunkavally

The ever-contentious battle between the music industry and the Internet hit a new low in the past month. The appropriately named Harry Fox Agency, the licensing arm of the National Music Publishers' Association, filed suit against the International Lyrics Server on grounds of copyright infringement.

If you've ever had trouble recollecting the lyrics of a song vaguely remembered, or the title/ artist of a song from a couple lyrics, chances are that you've visited the ILS webpage at http://www.lyrics.ch. The site contains lyrics for over 100,000 songs, and it receives about one million hits per day from visitors across the world. Between mp3s and the ILS, I've spent a good deal of time getting my music straight. No longer though on January 14, police officers in Basel, Switzerland confiscated the ILS servers.

The lawsuit represents another case in which the interests of avaricious businessmen will probably stamp out good spirits and faith, another validation of Leo Durocher's famous quotation, "Nice guys finish last." Pascal de Vries founded the site in 1997 after his rock group had trouble finding the lyrics to Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water." He created a database of lyrics that can be searched, and set up the mechanism for visitors to the site to submit their own lyrics to the database, a system somewhat akin to a newsgroup.

As an uncorroborated blanket statement, the HFA has said that it has lost millions from the ILS. It's mindboggling. How can the distribution of lyrics affect the sales of materials by musicians? One would surmise that having a central lyrics site would increase the musical awareness of potential consumers, and that that would at least cancel out the possible negative effect of distributing lyrics in the consumer's mind. In any case, most consumers consider lyrics as an afterthought in their purchases just listen to Dave Matthews.

The HFAhas also said that it initially pursued the ILS because the site sells ads. However, in reality, the ILS only started selling ads as recently as last October when the $14,500-per-month cost of maintaining the site became too much to handle for de Vries. In other words, despite the fact it sold ads, the ILS was a non-profit site whose sole purpose was to provide a valuable service to the Internet community.

A speculative but reasonable conclusion would be that the NMPA wants to turn the ILS into a commerical site. Negotiations last month did not produce anything final but hinted that the NMPA is trying to strike a deal with de Vries to take over site and restore limited freedoms. Such a deal would create problems the new site might end up limiting the number of songs to only those that fall within its copyright. Or, if the new site does decide to use all the lyrics on the original ILS, visitors who submitted lyrics would be enraged to discover their contrabutions twisted to join a commerical enterprise. In any case, de Vries better be compensated for his time and effort.

But a commerical site would only be faade for what the NMPA really wants to do:To send a message across the Internet that music copyright violations won't be tolerated. Never mind that it's not fully clear if copyright infringement has occurred in this case the threat of a lawsuit is enough to force many service providers back down. Apparently, long before the ILS, there was another lyrics server at ftp.uwp.edu that was also shut after a letter from the HFA. And in June of last year, the HFA forced the Online Guitair Archives (OLGA) to shut down.

It's clear that the NMPA feels that it can simply bully people around the Internet without any rhyme or reason to do as it wishes. Perhaps, one can understand how the distribution of mp3s may affect music sales, but how the distribution of lyrics can affect music sales is incomprehensible. The law, however, does not work on a case-by-case basis, and it appears that, defying common sense, the ILS and the public will lose out. And it's even more unfortunate that the winners will be a bunch of marauders, looters, and profiteers such as those at the HFA.