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A lyrics site goes legit

Gracenote_logo Gracenote announced a couple years ago that it was entering a new line of business, to go along with CD and music recognition services: it would supply lyrics, fully licensed by the copyright owners, to websites and device makers. It has landed a few notable deals since then, including Yahoo and MTV, but today it's unveiling its most interesting new customer: MetroLyrics, a British Columbia-based site that specializes in song lyrics. The deal is a sign that at least some sites operating in a legal and ethical gray zone online are ready to join forces with copyright holders, if the terms make sense.

The demand for lyrics is huge online (they're typically among the most-searched-for items) and hundreds, if not thousands, of sites try to capitalize on it. Like many file-sharing networks and streaming TV sites, however, they operate in the Internet underground. They spend little to build up databases of lyrics, use ad networks to cover their pages with pitches, and share nothing with copyright holders.

Metrolyrics_logo That's true in part because songwriters or music publishers haven't made it easy to license their words for publication online. Alan Juristovski, CEO of MetroLeap Media (the company that operates MetroLyrics), said that after his firm incorporated in October 2004, "we approached every source of legal lyric content because we felt at the time it was the right thing to do." No one offered a viable approach, not even Gracenote at first, Juristovski said. Eventually, however, the two companies worked out a revenue-sharing deal that made sense, he said. Neither he nor Gracenote would disclose financial details of their deal.

MetroLyrics attracts about 25 million unique visitors a month, so it has a large enough audience to make it appealing to advertisers. The quality of those ads was questionable at first, but Juristovski said it's improving. (A recent visit found pitches from Nordstrom, Washington Mutual, Staples and Circuit City, among other mainstream advertisers.) Still, some advertisers have refused to appear on MetroLyrics because the site wasn't fully cleared by copyright owners. The deal with Gracenote could resolve that problem, and the more accurate lyrics in Gracenote's database could lead to higher quality advertiseres, Juristovski said. But any effect on advertisers remains to be seen, he added. "We know that initially it will hurt our pocketbook, but we believe it is the right thing to do."

Jim Hollingsworth, Gracenote's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said the National Music Publishers Assn. has stepped up the pressure on lyrics sites, too. It has been sending cease-and-desist  notices to some sites, and it even asked Google to stop including at least one such outlet in its search results. But such efforts may not be as important as providing sites a convenient, affordable source of accurate lyrics data.

"I think the real story here is that when you come to the market with a reasonable solution from a quality, a technology, an implementation and a business model [standpoint] that actually works for people that are running sites and have the consumer audience, they will adopt the licensed and authorized solution," Hollingsworth said. "They’ll see it as a benefit and a way to move their business forward."


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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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