When the Swiss police raided the Basel home of Pascal de Vries Jan. 14, they weren’t looking for misappropriated Nazi gold or hidden bank accounts. What they were looking for — and eventually seized and confiscated — were the hard drives that held a database containing the words to tens of thousands of pop songs. The owner and operator of a hugely popular website called The International Lyrics Server (www.lyrics.ch), De Vries was threatened with charges of transgressing the laws of copyright. Now he’s about to come back online — but at what cost to Internet independence?
During the two years after its February 1997 launch, the ILS filled the needs of thousands of folk desperate to unlock the mysteries of the Kingsmen’s “Louie, Louie” or to comprehend the many mumbles of Michael Stipe. De Vries, 30, a Swiss computer consultant, established the site as a hobby when he couldn’t find the lyrics for Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” which his rock band wanted to cover. “I was always in need of song lyrics, but I didn’t find a good resource on the Internet,” De Vries e-mails from Switzerland. “So I started one of my own.” Lyrics were mostly supplied by fans, who submitted up to 300 new songs a day. Ultimately, the database boasted transcriptions of 100,000 pop tunes, mercifully allowing the stumped to determine what exactly David Soul was singing in his 1977 hit “Don’t Give Up on Us”. It was the Web at its friendliest, do-it-yourself best.
And, yes, it was illegal. The point was made clear this winter when a complaint was filed in Swiss court by the Harry Fox Agency, the licensing arm of the National Music Publishers’ Association (NMPA), on behalf of several American music publishers. Among the titles De Vries had allegedly infringed upon were “I Got You Babe” (written by Sonny Bono), “Embraceable You” (George and Ira Gershwin), “Walk Like an Egyptian” (Liam Sternberg), “Hold My Hand” (Hootie & the Blowfish), and “Ay, Ay, I” (Gloria Estefan).
Since the ILS home page featured banner ads, the NMPA accused De Vries of profiting from his work. According to De Vries, though, the revenue merely covered the costs of running his server; the NMPA’s real objective, he claimed, was to put him on the rack as an example. “They want to tell other sites that it’s really clear you don’t have any chance,” he told The New York Times on the Web in January. Following the lawsuit, Edward P. Murphy, president and CEO of the NMPA, issued a statement that said in part: “Many of the people posting lyrics on the Internet mistakenly believe that if the lyrics are merely copied down from a recording that they somehow become the intellectual property of the poster…. Only the copyright owners have the right to make and distribute copies of their works, including the lyrics.”
Given this face-off, the latest development is a bit of a shock. The Internet Lyrics Server is due to return to the Web in early May — as a partner of the NMPA’s own lyrics database, Songfile (www.songfile.com). Were De Vries’ legal troubles merely a blind for the NMPA’s ultimate goal of getting a nice database at little cost? Nobody associated with the NMPA is willing to comment on the settlement or its new online venture, and a nondisclosure agreement prevents De Vries from discussing the dispute or its resolution, other than to confirm that the NMPA has dropped charges against him and that the ILS will be linked to its new site. “At this early stage, it’s hard to tell exactly what [the NMPA’s] plans are,” says Lucas Graves, an analyst for consulting firm Jupiter Communications. “The most obvious value of all of the song lyrics in the ILS would be the possibility of integrating that textual database with digital-music delivery. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s where the Harry Fox Agency and the NMPA are going.”
Along with the ongoing battle over MP3 music files, the Lyrics Server’s travails mark the front line of the war between copyright holders and Internet freedom fighters. Not surprisingly, musicians often strike a more liberal chord than their corporate parents. “There have been incidences in the past where lawyers have gone in and shut something down without seeing the upside,” says Thomas Dolby Robertson, the ’80s pop star (“She Blinded Me With Science”) and, more recently, founder of the digital-music company Beatnik Inc. The recording industry, he notes, has just started to realize “why a site like this would be popular in the first place, and how they could benefit from it.”
But while the industry gets up to speed, the raid on De Vries’ house serves as warning to all unofficial sites. As for the average Web surfer, the next time you need to know just what on earth Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs were singing between choruses of “Wooly Bully,” maybe you should just pull out the headphones.