Rap Genius, the lyrics site with financial backing from Silicon Valley heavyweights, has signed its first licensing deal. Now the question is if more of such agreements are on the way.
Billboard has learned the Brooklyn-based startup has a licensing agreement with Sony/ATV Music Publishing, the largest song publisher with 33% market share in the third quarter, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The site, which has branched out into news and poetry, is among the most popular of unlicensed lyrics sites, according to a list released by the National Music Publishers’ Assn. (NMPA).
In a statement to Billboard, Sony/ATV Music Publishing chairman/ CEO Martin Bandier acknowledged Rap Genius’ ability to reinvent how fans interact with song lyrics. “Rap Genius allows our songwriters and artists to connect directly with their fans in a new and exciting way. And the site’s popularity is certainly due, in large part, to our songwriters’ lyrics.”
Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz invested $15 million in Rap Genius in October. Andreessen Horowitz is not a typical investor. Co-founder Marc Andreessen co-founded Netscape Communications Corp., while its other co-founder Ben Horowitz, a huge rap fan, founded Opsware. The company had previously raised $1.8 million from Betaworks and graduated from the Y Combinator startup incubator.
Rap Genius calls itself “a hip-hop Wikipedia” and in some ways works like the popular online encyclopedia. Both sites allow users — anybody can register — to create pages and add content. Whereas people use Wikipedia to contribute encyclopedic entries about people, places, things and events, Rap Genius lets contributors create pages for songs, add song lyrics and offer insights about meanings behind lyrics in annotations.
Those annotations are part of an attempt to claim fair use of copyright, entertainment attorney Christian Castle says. Fair use is a defense to copyright infringement afforded to reporting, teaching, criticism/commentary or research. A court takes into account the purpose of the use and how much of the total work was used, among other factors. Castle says that the way Rap Genius words its statements and terminology on its site shows that the company is “struggling very hard” to make the fair-use defense appropriate.
Critics say Rap Genius violates copyright law. At a press conference on Nov. 11, the NMPA, along with songwriter and University of Georgia researcher David Lowery, announced it had sent takedown notices to the top 50 unlicensed lyrics sites. Lowery created the list, topped by Rap Genius, using an automated process that searches lyrics sites for popular songs.
Takedown requests could lead to lawsuits, but NMPA president/CEO David Israelite insists the organization doesn’t want to shut down sites. “We simply want those that are making money off lyrics to be business partners with the songwriters who created the content that is the basis of the sites.” The group claims that more than 5 million searches for “lyrics” occur each day on Google and that more than 50% of all lyric page views are on unlicensed lyrics sites. LyricsMania.com, which displays advertising, claims on its site that it has 12 million unique visitors a month. The site did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Rap Genius co-founder Ilan Zechory says, “Rap Genius is so much more than a lyrics site. The lyrics sites the NMPA refers to simply display song lyrics, while Rap Genius has crowd-sourced annotations that give context to all the lyrics line by line, and tens of thousands of verified annotations directly from writers and performers. Furthermore, music is only a small part of what we do.”