The music lyrics site used a digital watermark to see if other sites were copying its product — and it spelled “redhanded” in Morse code.

Lyrics site Genius on Tuesday sued Google and LyricFind for $50 million, alleging they have been misappropriating its transcriptions for years. 

The site became suspicious after noticing lyrics to Desiigner’s 2016 hit “Panda” that appeared in a Google search results box matched its transcription character-for-character. After the discovery, Genius implemented a watermark using variations of apostrophes in its lyrics. 

“Genius set the 2nd, 5th, 13th, 14th, 16th and 20th apostrophes of each watermarked song as curly apostrophes, and all the other apostrophes straight,” states the complaint. “If the straight apostrophes are interpreted as dots and the curly apostrophes are interpreted as dashes, the pattern spells out ‘REDHANDED’ in Morse code.”

For months, Genius monitored Google results looking for the watermark. In May 2017, it contacted the tech giant explaining the watermark and using Kendrick Lamar’s “PRIDE” as an example. The company asserts multiple Google execs claimed they were looking into the issue but never offered an explanation. 

People commonly assume music lyrics are provided to sites like Genius by publishers or labels, according to the complaint, but that’s usually not the case. The company relies on “music enthusiasts” to transcribe the works, or obtains them from the artists themselves, and gets a license from the publisher to display and distribute them. Genius then licenses its lyrics database to companies including Apple.

“Lyrics transcription is an arduous task that often requires genre experts to repeatedly listen to songs in order to produce accurate transcriptions,” states the complaint. “Genius has invested ten years and tens of millions of dollars to build the technology and community that supports collaborative lyrics transcription. The high quality and ready availability of lyrics on Genius are a direct result of this technology and Genius’s engaged community of users.”

Genius not only claims Google is using stolen lyrics, it also alleges the site makes it difficult for users to access organic search results. 

Google revamped its site in late 2014 to expand the information box that appears at the top of search results and include lyrics, according to the complaint. When a user googles “Lose You to Love Me” lyrics, for example, Genius says the box displays them in full and a user has to scroll down past Google-owned products like YouTube and Google Play before arriving at organic results like the Genius site.

“In other words, in the competition for users on the internet, Google has designed its lyrics Information Box in a way that discourages users from seeking another result, and, in many cases, directs them toward other revenue-generating Google products,” states the complaint.

From October through December 2018, Genius stepped up its watermark test and searched its lyrics every day. It found clear evidence of copying in 116 of the 301 songs it tested, according to the complaint.

In April of this year, Genius approached Google again and the tech giant identified LyricFind as the source of the lyrics at issue. So Genius sent LyricFind a cease-and-desist order. Nothing changed until after The Wall Street Journal published a story about the alleged lyric lifting. After that, Genius says, its watermarked product disappeared from the information box results.

The company then devised a new watermark using spaces — one that spells “genius” in Morse code. Genius did another round of analysis and estimates 40 percent of lyrics from new music displayed in the information box were misappropriated from its site. 

Genius is suing Google and LyricFind for breach of contract, alleging they would have had to agree to the site’s terms of service in order to access the lyrics and that contract prohibits commercial use. Genius is also suing both companies for violations of California and New York state unfair competition laws and unjust enrichment. 

When asked for comment on the complaint, which is posted below, Google directed The Hollywood Reporter to a June blog post. In it, the tech giant says it licenses lyrics from a third party and asked its lyrics partner to investigate the claims. LyricFind also posted a June blog entry in response to the accusations, explaining its team often starts with existing lyrics and then corrects them and instructed its workers to not use Genius as a source after the cease-and-desist was sent.

LyricFind CEO Darryl Ballantyne on Tuesday sent THR a comment. “We have not had any contact with Genius since June, and in fact, have not even been served with the complaint,” he says. “From what we’re reading online, it is completely frivolous and without merit.”

Dec. 3, 5:40 p.m. Updated with comment from LyricFind and correct amount of damages being sought by Genius.

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