Second Circuit Court of Appeals Upholds Verdict for Google in Song Lyrics Lawsuit

On Thursday, March 10, 2022, a three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld a verdict favoring Google in a lawsuit brought by song lyrics website Genius. The lawsuit claimed that Google was displaying transcribed lyrics scraped by Google from Genius in search results in violation of Genius’s copyright.

The 2019 case was filed in the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York. In that court, Judge Margo K. Brodie ruled that Google did not violate Genius’s copyright since Genius is not the valid copyright holder of the lyrics. Although Genius licenses lyrics and adds to them to create derivative works through annotations, the actual copyright belongs to the musicians who wrote the lyrics. Judge Brodie ruled in favor of Google in August 2020. Google licenses lyric transcriptions from LyricFind, a Canadian company also named as a defendant in Genius’s lawsuit. Genius appealed the ruling to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

In its appeal, Genius argued “that the district court erred by concluding that its breach of contract and unfair competition claims are statutorily preempted.” The three-judge panel disagreed with the argument and thus affirmed the district court’s ruling. The Second Circuit interprets Section 301 of the Copyright Act “as directing a two-part analysis for determining whether a state law claim is preempted under [the section].”

The first prong, the “subject matter” requirement, requires that the work “come within the subject matter of copyright.” The panel ruled that Genius’s claims satisfied the subject matter requirement since the subject matter is its lyrics transcriptions. Genius argued otherwise, claiming that its transcriptions are not copyrightable since they lack originality, which is a necessity for works of authorship that qualify for copyright protection. The panel of judges dismissed this argument, however, since the Second Circuit previously held that Section 301 of the Copyright Act prevents states from protecting a work that fails to rise to the level of Federal statutory copyright due to minimalism or lacking originality.

The second prong, the “equivalence” or “general scope” requirement, requires that the right being asserted is “equivalent to any of the exclusive rights within the general scope of copyright.” For preemption to apply, “the state law claim must involve acts of reproduction, adaptation, performance, distribution or display.” The panel ruled that Genius’s breach of contract claims satisfied the general scope requirement. Genius argued that the breach of contract claims escaped preemption “because those claims require it to plead ‘mutual assent and valid consideration’ and ‘assert [] rights only against the contractual counterparty, not the public at large.'” In making this argument, Genius relied on a previous case decided by the Second Circuit. The panel clarified, though, that said case did not address whether the argued elements were sufficient to preclude preemption. The panel in Genius’s appeal ruled that the elements are insufficient to avoid preemption.

The three-judge panel also held that Genius’s unfair competition claims did not escape preemption because the claims “[are] based solely on the allegation that [Google and LyricFind] wrongfully copied and reproduced lyrics from its website.” Genius did not allege “an extra element to qualitatively differentiate its unfair competition claims from a federal copyright claim.” Similar to the breach of contract claims, the alleged unauthorized publication is coextensive with the exclusive right already protected by the Copyright Act, thus preempting Genius’s claims.

Additional Reading

Google wins court battle with Genius over song lyrics, The Verge (March 11, 2022)

Genius Media Group Inc. v. Google LLC et al (Case No. 1:2019cv07279)

Summary Order in ML Genius Holdings LLC v. Google LLC, LyricFind (Case No. 20-3113)

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