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Genius Media Group v. Google LLC

District court dismisses suit against Google for copying and using content from lyrics website Genius in search engine results, finding state law claims preempted by Copyright Act.

Genius Media Group Inc., a digital media company that creates annotated music lyrics, sued Google alleging that the technology company misappropriated song lyrics from the Genius lyrics website without permission and displayed them in the “information boxes” that appear whenever a user searches for a particular song using the Google search engine. While lyrics to most songs typically can be found in various places all over the web, Genius claimed that it used a complex system of watermarking to determine that Google was in fact lifting the lyrics from Genius’ website.

Genius originally sued in New York state court, claiming breach of contract, indemnification, unfair competition and unjust enrichment. Although the allegations stemmed from the belief that Google stole song lyrics from Genius, no causes of action related to copyright infringement or other intellectual property theft were included in the complaint because music publishers and songwriters, not Genius, are the owners of such rights. Google removed the suit to federal court on the grounds that all of Genius’ state law claims arose from the alleged copying of copyrighted material, which was governed by federal law, and moved to dismiss the claims as preempted by the Copyright Act.

To determine whether plaintiff’s claims were preempted by the federal Copyright Act, the court looked at both the “subject matter and the general scope” of the state law claims. The subject matter requirement is met when the claim seeks to vindicate a legal or equitable right that is equivalent to one of the exclusive rights protected under the Copyright Act. Genius conceded that the transcribed song lyrics fell within the type of works protected by the Copyright Act and thus satisfied the subject matter requirement. The general scope prong is met only when the state-created right is abridged by an act that would inherently constitute a copyright infringement. In other words, if the state law claim involves only acts of reproduction, adaptation, distribution or display (or any other act that would trigger a copyright infringement), the general scope requirement would be met. The district court determined that Google’s alleged actions, which formed the basis of Genius’ claims, were no different from those contemplated by the Copyright Act. Therefore, the general scope requirement was satisfied, paving the way for preemption. 

Genius argued that the lyrics on its website were derivative works of original copyrighted songs because it applied its own labor and resources during the transcription process. The district court was not convinced, however, stating that only the original copyright owner has a right to authorize derivative works and therefore Genius had no legal right to sue over lyrics that it did not own. Even if it did have the right to sue, the state law claims would still be preempted by federal law.
Summary prepared by David Grossman and Marwa Abdelaziz