Rap Genius founders

Tom Lehman, Ilan Zechory and Mahbod Moghadam of Rap Genius | Image Credit: Tech Crunch

Lyrics collection website Rap Genius is no stranger to controversial business practices. Back in November the site was the focus of an NMPA piracy investigation, thanks to its unlicensed reproduction of the words songwriters.

Then, over the holidays, Google unearthed some illicit search engine gaming schemes that Rap Genius had been employing to boost its search position. The site was summarily demoted to positions far from the highly sought-after first page and told to change its ways.

Some would say justice had been served, but more troubling developments were ahead.

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Searching for Trouble

Any company working to build low-quality links through paid or affiliate schemes knows by now that they’re skirting the edges of the search game. Rap Genius, a venture capital-funded business to the tune of tens of millions of dollars should have known better. Although its founders acknowledged the mistake, it was something of a childish apology that also sought to point fingers and blame competitors for similarly dubious search practices.

The response was much the same over the lyrics piracy issue in November, as co-founder Ilan Zechory tried to make a special case for his site being a “knowledge project,” while agreeing that the other lyrics sites were fair game for the Google takedown notices filed against them by the NMPA.

Despite this lack of humility, it didn’t take long for Rap Genius to get back into Google’s good books.

Earlier this month, less than two weeks after being demoted, the site was resurrected from the search backwaters and sitting back atop the first page. This has caused many to question the motives of Google itself, given that the VC firm behind Rap Genius, Andreesen Horowitz, has significant connections to the search giant’s own ‘Ventures’ arm.

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The Nuances of the Anti-Piracy Fight

This example becomes even more convoluted when we consider the criticism that Google has itself come in for as it fails to prevent links appearing to illegal file-sharing and torrent sites. Lawmakers across the Western world have long criticized the most dominant name in online search for paying lip service to anti-piracy efforts. The rapid reinstatement of Rap Genius will do little to counter this view, even if the initial commitment to punish the site for illicit practices was to be applauded.

Taken together, these cases demonstrate the complex environment in which the anti-piracy battle is being fought. Rap Genius could conceivably become a great ally to songwriters, if it were willing to transform a business model that clearly has the potential to make millions. Agreeing compensation with songwriter organizations to feed royalties through to the owners of lyrics under copyright would take the site from illicit to legitimate in one fell swoop.

For its part, Google of course holds major sway over how fans searching for music listen to what they find. If it served up only licensed sources of music, the play counts would rise on those services and more money would feed through to artists.

Each site has a role to play in making sure that the content on which they base their services is legitimately sourced and licensed. It serves the interests of each party to work with songwriters, not against them, to help compensate the creative base and keep the music that prompts so many searches flowing through the right channels.