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6 Months : From May 2019 to Nov 2019
By Robert McMillan
Genius Media Group Inc. depends on Google's search engine to send music lovers to its website stocked with hard-to-decipher lyrics to hip-hop songs and other pop hits.
Now Genius says its traffic is dropping because, for the past several years, Google has been publishing lyrics on its own platform, with some of them lifted directly from the music site.
Google denies wrongdoing. Still, Genius's complaints offer a window into the challenges small tech companies can face when the unit of Alphabet Inc. starts offering competing services on its platform.
The complaints come amid mounting concerns over the business practices of Google and other tech giants. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the Justice Department is gearing up for a new antitrust probe into the search company.
Genius said it notified Google as far back as 2017, and again in an April letter, that copied transcriptions appear on Google's website. The April letter, a copy of which was viewed by the Journal, warned that reuse of Genius's transcriptions breaks the Genius.com terms of service and violates antitrust law.
"Over the last two years, we've shown Google irrefutable evidence again and again that they are displaying lyrics copied from Genius," said Ben Gross, Genius's chief strategy officer, in an email message. The company said it used a watermarking system in its lyrics that embedded patterns in the formatting of apostrophes. Genius said it found more than 100 examples of songs on Google that came from its site.
Starting around 2016, Genius said, the company made a subtle change to some of the songs on its website, alternating the lyrics' apostrophes between straight and curly single-quote marks in exactly the same sequence for every song.
When the two types of apostrophes were converted to the dots and dashes used in Morse code, they spelled out the words "Red Handed."
In a written statement, Google said the lyrics on its site, which pop up in little search-result squares called "information panels," are licensed from partners, not created by Google.
"We take data quality and creator rights very seriously and hold our licensing partners accountable to the terms of our agreement," Google said.
After this article was published online Sunday, Google issued a second statement to say it was investigating the issue raised by Genius and would terminate its agreements with partners who were "not upholding good practices."
In 2016, Google forged a partnership with LyricFind, a Canadian company that secures deals with music publishers allowing companies such as Google to publish lyrics online. LyricFind Chief Executive Darryl Ballantyne said in an email that his company creates lyrics using its own content team. "We do not source lyrics from Genius," he said.
Google's information boxes are part of the company's continuing effort to provide users with direct answers to their queries on results pages, particularly on mobile devices. The company says the boxes provide users with a better experience.
It also means Google is directing a smaller share of those queries to other sites. In March, 62% of mobile searches on Google didn't result in a user clicking through to another website, according to the web-analytics firm Jumpshot Inc.
Google previously has disrupted companies' business models by switching from referring traffic via search to providing services directly on Google websites. Google Maps increasingly competes with local-business listing service Yelp Inc., and Google's forays into travel and shopping services have taken traffic from online retailers and travel sites, said Rand Fishkin, chief executive of SparkToro LLC, a web-marketing software company.
As a result, clicks to web publishers have been dropping on desktop search, Mr. Fishkin said. Desktop searches end without a click to another website about 35% of the time. That is up about 9% since 2016, according to Jumpshot.
Genius is a privately held company, and its investors include Andreessen Horowitz, the rapper Nas and Quicken Loans Inc. founder Dan Gilbert. The company doesn't disclose revenue but says its ad business runs to tens of millions of dollars a year. It also earns money by providing lyrics and facts about songs that it publishes and licenses under agreement with music publishers.
Genius clients include the music-streaming website Spotify Technology SA and Apple Inc. Genius also earns money through different initiatives, including advertising and sponsored videos on YouTube.
Genius first became suspicious about the source of Google's lyrics in 2016, when a Genius software engineer spotted something odd about the song "Panda," a hit by rapper Desiigner. While many lyrics sites had published error-ridden transcriptions of Desiigner's hard-to-understand lyrics, Genius had the definitive version because Desiigner himself provided his lyrics to the site, Genius said.
"We noticed that Google's lyrics matched our lyrics down to the character," Genius's Mr. Gross said.
The Journal randomly chose three of the more than 100 examples Genius says it found of songs on Google containing these watermarks, and verified the pattern of apostrophes was the same.
Because Genius doesn't itself own the copyright on the lyrics in question, the company might have a weak hand in any legal dispute with Google, said Daphne Keller, a former Google lawyer who now studies the regulation of technology platforms at Stanford's Center for Internet and Society.
"But it's totally understandable why they don't want this happening, and I imagine Google doesn't want it happening either," she said.
Write to Robert McMillan at Robert.Mcmillan@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
June 16, 2019 18:56 ET (22:56 GMT)
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