Program Helps iTunes Users Hunt Down Song Lyrics

An Austrian software designer has developed a program that helps users of Apple iTunes find song lyrics while they're listening. Music publishers were not amused, at first.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Farai Chideya, sitting in for Alex Chadwick and Madeleine Brand.

In a few minutes, we'll read some letters from listeners.

But first, ever been singing along to your favorite song but with the wrong lyrics? Case in point, Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze."

(Soundbite of "Purple Haze")

Mr. JIMI HENDRIX: (Singing) Purple haze...

CHIDEYA: Instead of singing `excuse me while I kiss the sky'...

(Soundbite of "Purple Haze")

Mr. HENDRIX: (Singing) Excuse me while I kiss the sky.

CHIDEYA: ...you were singing `excuse me while I kiss this guy.' But now there's help. A guy came along and invented software that lets you pull lyrics off the Web while you're listening to music. Sounds good, right? Not to music publishers. Here with more on the controversy is DAY TO DAY tech contributor Xeni Jardin.

XENI JARDIN reporting:

Walter Ritter is a 31-year-old tech researcher in Austria. He studies how to make software easier to use, and he loves music. So in his spare time, he coded a helper tool for Apple's iTunes called pearLyrics. While you try to decipher the lyrics of a song in iTunes...

(Soundbite of "Smells Like Teen Spirit")

Mr. KURT COBAIN: (Singing) A mulatto, an albino...

JARDIN: ...pearLyrics hunts down the lyrics to that song on the Internet, then adds the text to your digital music file. Thousands of people downloaded it and agreed it was easy to use, but Warner Chappelle Music objected. The label sent a threatening letter to Ritter which said, `Shut down pearLyrics or face legal action.'

Mr. WALTER RITTER (PearLyrics): I was very surprised. I believe they were thinking that pearLyrics distributes lyrics to other users.

JARDIN: Walter Ritter wrote back trying to explain that this wasn't like Napster or Grokster, both of which were ruled to have violated copyright law. `This is simply a little helper program to gather music lyrics that someone else has put out on the Internet.' Two weeks passed with no response.

Mr. RITTER: I don't want to risk a trial or something like that.

JARDIN: Ritter removed the software from his Web site. Apple removed its link to pearLyrics after Warner threatened them, too. But attorney Fred von Lohmann of the Electronic Frontier Foundation did not approve of Warner's threat. He wrote an open letter criticizing the company.

Mr. FRED VON LOHMANN (Electronic Frontier Foundation): A lot of people buy songs from the iTunes Music Store; a lot of people make copies of CDs that they own. It's a purely personal, non-commercial use to essentially make a copy of lyrics to annotate the songs that you've legitimately acquired. So I don't see that music fans are doing anything wrong when they copy lyrics to add lyrics to their iTunes music files. And if the music fans aren't doing anything wrong when they do it, it's certainly not unlawful to make a tool that helps someone do it.

JARDIN: Von Lohmann argued that pearLyrics wasn't making any money or harming an existing business. You're not less likely to buy music just because you've found the lyrics to it. If anything, the only businesses that pearLyrics was harming were Web sites that were making money off lyrics without the permission of record companies. And pearLyrics was giving consumers something they've lost in the digital age.

Mr. VON LOHMANN: When music fans try to essentially get the digital equivalent of what's come for free in the CD for so many years, the music publishers are taking the view that they are a bunch of thieves and pirates and software developers that help them are also thieves and pirates.

JARDIN: Von Lohmann's letter was widely circulated online on blogs and tech Web sites. A few days later, the chairman of Warner Chappelle contacted Ritter to apologize and admitted that the tone and substance of the complaint were inappropriate. But beginning in January, the Music Publishers Association, of which Warner Chappelle is a member, will begin a legal attack on five or six commercial Web sites. These Web sites post lyrics and the notes to the music without licenses. MPA CEO Lauren Keiser says penalties should be stiff, potentially including jail time.

Mr. LAUREN KEISER (CEO, Music Publishers Association): It is not out of the question to ask the Justice Department for aid if we come across a circumstance where someone will not cease and desist and take down the illegal pirated trafficking of the copyrights.

JARDIN: PearLyrics, though, appears to be free of its legal problems. Walter Ritter says Warner Chappelle is now talking with him about ways to create lyrics search tools with the blessing of record labels, but this experience, Ritter says, has caused him to think twice before converting his next cool idea into code.

Mr. RITTER: One thing I'm concerned about is how should I go on with other software developments, because this is a potential issue that every time I come up with something that people like and that's getting publicity, someone steps in the door and says, `Hey, you can't do that because that's illegal; you're infringing our copyright.' It's getting really difficult to be--innovate as a small developer.

JARDIN: For now, pearLyrics remains offline, but Ritter says he hopes that talks with Warner Chappelle will lead to its return to the Internet sometime soon. And then maybe we'll finally figure out what Kurt Cobain was saying.

(Soundbite of "Smells Like Teen Spirit")

Mr. COBAIN: (Singing) ...a denial...

JARDIN: For NPR News, I'm Xeni Jardin.

(Soundbite of "Smells like Teen Spirit")

Mr. COBAIN: (Singing) ...a denial.

CHIDEYA: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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