Why Open Source Rocks (and the music industry does not)

If you ever looked for song lyrics online, you know how most lyrics sites are. Plenty of ads, popups, silly scrolling flash gadgets, bad punctuation, and no easy way to send in corrections. Why not apply to lyrics the same community-driven editing model that has made Wikipedia so successful?

LyricWiki.org has done exactly that, and more. They have provided an API, making it easy for media players to query the database and fetch the lyrics for a specific song. To get an idea of this project’s success, check out these stats. At the time of this writing, LyricWiki is the fifth largest MediaWiki in existence, and the largest wiki that is not a Wikipedia or Wiktionary. What an inspiring example of a community built around the ideals of improving content and making information available. What could go wrong?

Well, how about this. Who owns the copyright on song lyrics? Right, the artist who wrote them. And who represents the artist? Right, a record company. And what do record companies do to nice sites like LyricWiki?

The following message appeared in the lyrics applet of my beloved Amarok earlier this week:

Unfortunately, due to licensing restrictions from some of the major music publishers we can no longer return lyrics through the LyricWiki API (where this application gets some or all of its lyrics).

My first thought when seeing that was, “Huh?! It used to work yesterday.” Apparently, less than 24 hours have passed between the announcement that developers need to change their applications, and the moment the LyricWiki API actually stopped working for retrieving lyrics. In a way, this is a good thing. I hope a lot of users put the pieces together and figured out who is really to blame.

Now let’s see how Amarok handled the situation. Within 12 hours, the bug report had a patch. In the next two hours, the patch was tested, and a glitch was found and fixed. The next day (still less than 24 hours from the time the bug was reported), the patch was pushed to Git. As an Amarok user observing this process from outside, I thought the turnaround time was pretty darn good!

Unfortunately, getting this fix to the users was not as quick and painless. Since lyrics fetching is done in a script, there is no need to recompile Amarok. Furthermore, we have KNewStuff for installing and updating scripts (among other things). So we are just a step away from allowing users to fix the lyrics problem using Amarok’s Script Manager. Why not take it?

(Besides the fact that the script is not on kde-apps, another minor issue is that it only works for Amarok 2.1.1 and trunk. Because of this, the script needs modifications to work with Amarok 2.1, which is still shipped by Kubuntu. But nothing that can’t be fixed in code in 5 minutes.)

Congrats to the Amarok team for being so close to greatness! Amarok was one of the apps that switched me towards KDE in my early days with Linux (the other one was K3B). So I’m glad to see it rocking even harder today.

Now let me return to LyricWiki for a minute. Can someone enlighten me as to why the music publishers would impose such a restriction on them? If I were an artist and you came asking for my lyrics, I would gladly give them to you and thank you for listening to my stuff. I’ve heard of people selling music, but… selling lyrics?!

I hope that as technology makes recording and distribution cheaper, more artists will take matters into their own hands and release their stuff independently.

PS. If you are reading this on Planet KDE and wondering who I am, Hi! wave-smiley I am doing a GSoC project in Akonadi / KMail, mentored by Thomas McGuire. I may provide an update about that later, if the mood strikes.

12 Responses to Why Open Source Rocks (and the music industry does not)

  1. Angela says:

    I am not sure that I understand you correctly… You say “…I would gladly give them to you and thank you for listening to my stuff. I’ve heard of people selling music, but… selling lyrics?!”

    Are you sure you would give your music for free, even if music is your only/main sourse of income?

  2. Constantin says:

    “Them” means the lyrics. I would give you my lyrics for free. I can understand people trying to protect access to music, for the purpose of selling it, but I cannot understand people trying to protect access to lyrics.

  3. jospoortvliet says:

    @Angela: he obviously meant the lyrics, not the music itself. By providing the lyrics to accompany the music you provide a service which makes the product (music) more enjoyable. It’s pretty stupid to shoot yourself in the foot by opposing sites which offer this service to your audience (for you, so you don’t have to!) thereby increasing the value of your product.

    Especially considering there isn’t really a business model for providing those lyrics to your music for money.

    Or, in other words:
    – someone provides a service which increases the value of your product at no cost or lost opportunity to you.

    Why the hell would you stop them from doing that? Then again. We all knew the RIAA and friends are pretty stupid.

  4. Daskreech says:

    I think that since Music Companies are still very focused on physical sales of CDs etc they try to get added value by packing in Lyrics and Photos which costs them nothing but makes the package more attractive. They probably see lyrics sites as people downloading music then getting the lyrics for free as well which gives them very little they can put with a physical product that will not cost them money to put together as well as the pain of having to think it up.

  5. Alex says:

    I am not surprised by such behaviour. Did you know that if someone scans a book that is in the public domain – they get to own the copyright for the scan of the book? (IANAL, learned this on Slashdot :-)

    I’m using Rhythmbox, it also has a lyrics plugin that works well, and supports multiple data sources. I never examined the implementation details – I’m just glad that it works.

    Why would they sell lyrics? Let’s try to look at things from another perspective – sometimes a song has words in it. Sometimes the words are written by whoever composed the music, sometimes these are different people. Imagine that someone chose a famous poem and decided to make music that “complements” it.

    Imagine that the poem is copyrighted by someone, and each time the artist performs the song, they have to credit the author of the poem. With wikis such as the one you mention, the use of the lyrics gets out of control.

    Of course, I believe the real explanation is that they are not just greedy, but also foolish enough to conclude that “if we can’t make money on the lyrics, no one will” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultimatum_game]

  6. Faemir says:

    Sonata started showing this yesterday.

    I would swear loudly but this is your blog, so instead i’ll just say:

    Why on earth would /anyone/ do this? It’s bizarre and irritating beyond believe. I mean seriously. What reasoning / justification could they even begin to fumble together for this?


    Just put it into perspective. Record companies are stopping us from having a bunch of words be displayed in our audio player. A BUNCH OF WORDS.


  7. Constantin says:

    Good point. But if I love a band, I would buy the CD with extras anyway, regardless of whether the lyrics / photos / etc. are available online.

    The scan thing is pretty crazy indeed.

    As an artist, allowing access to your lyrics does not mean you have to give up your copyright. You can still charge people for derivative works. It shouldn’t make a difference if the lyrics are widely available or not, since you still own the copyright for them (and can sue people who violate it). Besides, if I have the song I can reverse-engineer the lyrics (-;

  8. William Huntington Russell says:

    Never even pretend to get in between a fat, rich, old white guy and the “bonus” he’s earmarked to buy his next car.

  9. Glin says:

    I hope artists will now realize what stupid “record companies” represent them and rebel against them, because this is not a first example how record companies killing great and free advertisement of artists without any reason.

  10. jospoortvliet says:

    @William Huntington Russell: He, that’s refreshing. For a change someone being racist toward the typical racist ;-)

    They’ve screwed us long enough (and are still screwing us with the economical crisis – bonuses are going up already), so +1

  11. Jessie says:

    Record companies own (or control) the copyright in sound recordings, but do not own the copyright in the underlying work, which includes the musical composition and the lyrics – this is owned by publishers.

    There are different royalties payable to each party (and widely different arrangments for paying these on to the creators) for different uses, and publishers want to keep control of lyrics because it’s another potential revenue stream.

  12. audun says:

    Well that’s copyright law for you. Text is copyrighted, and you can’t distribute copies of it without permission. Whether it is lyrics, blog posts, novels, poems or whatever, it is copyrighted. LyricsWiki is doing the exact same thing as the Pirate Bay, so don’t expect the law to threat them any differently.

    Though, this just underlines the need for a different copyright system.

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