@zchase and What’s Up at NPR’s “Planet Money”?

MTP readers will recall when Rap Genius–or what RG’s investor Marc Andreessen has called the “Internet Talmud”–decided to come in from the cold and get licenses for the lyrics that are an integral part of the site.  (“Internet Talmud”?  Really?  Entitled much?)

Yes, Mark Andreessen posted on a Rapgenius forum this explanation for why he was investing in the company:

It turns out that Rap Genius has a much bigger idea and a much broader mission than that. Which is: Generalize out to many other categories of text… annotate the world… be the knowledge about the knowledge… create the Internet Talmud.

So before moving on to rip off poets with their apparently unlicensed “Poetry Genius” site, Rap Genius decided to get licenses for at least some of the glue the holds their business together, a lyric license.  Rap Genius is a business with a valuation around $50 million given the $15 million that Andreessen’s venture fund reportedly put  into the company.  $15 million to cover, you know, like salaries and stuff, bro.  (Songwriters and poets, allow me to interpret.  A “salary” is what some people get paid every week rain or shine  when they work for The Man, or in this case The Man 2.0. or in the case of NPR, The Man.gov).

NPR’s financial show “Planet Money” (which appears to be targeted at someone other than investors and is not to be confused with “Marketplace” or the “Nightly Business Report”) decided to cover the Rap Genius dustup with songwriters in this podcast “Episode 537: Hold The Music, Just The Lyrics Please,” which also appeared in an edited form “When Lyrics Get Posted Online, Who Gets Paid?” both with the byline of one Zoe Chace, who apparently is a journalist at NPR.

In contemporary culture it’s not really sensible to talk about unlicensed lyrics and Rap Genius without also mentioning University of Georgia lecturer David Lowery, who also founded Cracker and Camper van Beethoven.  (Full disclosure: David Lowery is a friend of mine and his Trichordist blog will be familiar to MTP readers.  However, I haven’t discussed this post with David at all.)

I wasn’t aware of Ms. Chace’s programs–or actually program–on the subject until yesterday when one of the Rap Genius founders was separated from the company due to some tasteless comments he made about the Santa Barbara mass murderer.  In fairness to Ms. Chace, I don’t think as some apparently do that her interview with the Rap Genius executive team was–to be polite–“fawning”, although she does seem rather uncritical in the interview she aired.

Here’s a couple other things she missed:

1.  Attribution of Lowery:  You know, that who-what-when-where-why-how stuff.   David Lowery is a lecturer at the University of Georgia Terry School of Business.  Never mentioned.

2.  Lowery’s Congressional Testimony on Fair Use:  Ms. Chase interviewed Patricia Aufderheide, co-author of a book entitled “Reclaiming Fair Use” with Professor Peter Jaszi.  More about him.  Ms. Aufderheide and Ms. Chace discussed the issue of “fair use,” which Rap Genius was determined to try to shoe horn into this case but eventually gave up on.  Interestingly, Ms. Aufderheide concluded that the crowd sourced and even annotated Rap Genius would not enjoy success with the affirmative defense of fair use once those noncommercial uses were uploaded to the commercial Rap Genius site.  (Lowery drew pretty much the same conclusion in his Congressional testimony.)

Ms. Chase might have mentioned that David Lowery was invited to testify before the House Judiciary Committee’s IP subcommittee alongside Ms. Aufderheide’s writing partner Professor Peter Jaszi.  On the subject of fair use.

But why bring that up.

Attribution of Study:  Ms. Chace makes Lowery’s Undesirable Lyric Website list one of the centerpieces of her story, but she never calls it by its actual name–you know, the title of the study that’s on Rap Genius.  And, frankly, all over the Internet.  That is, the “University of Georgia Undesirable Lyric Website List.”  Of course, if she called it by its proper name, that would raise the question of how a songwriter like Lowery came to be able to use the University of Georgia’s name as the title of a list–and that would require mentioning that the songwriter conducted research on the list at the University.  Where he worked.  At his job.  Easy enough to clear up, right, just properly answer the attribution question in 1.

If you wanted to.

4.  Methodology of the Study:  Ms. Chace tells us that Lowery created his lyric site list by “googling” lyrics.  Because that’s how people find things online, they “google” them.  Perhaps she also makes xeroxes.  Or eats a mcdonalds.  Or blows her nose with a kleenex.  Or takes an aspirin.  Or uses a zipper.  Or rides an escalator.  You know, googling.  Nobody will care, of course, just another kowtow to a multinational getting free advertising on public radio.  Who would care?

Maybe the underwriters who don’t get the free plug?


Actually, the ranking methodology was disclosed as part of the study and it is not just a bunch of Internet searching.   In fact, David’s methodology was all right there on Rap Genius.  (There have been several iterations since the October release.)  Ms. Chace never brought it up during her piece.  Which seems odd, since the methodology was clearly disclosed and she was interviewing Lowery who could have reacted first hand to any criticism she had of his methodology.  All she had to do was ask him about his study…at the University of Georgia…as part of his…job.


Better to have him sing a few bars of “Low” and “Take the Skinheads Bowling.”  Why discuss the facts?

5.  Who Complained?  Ms. Chace leaves us with the impression (based on a statement from Rap Genius) that Lowery is the only songwriter who complained.  If she had researched the timeline she would have seen that Rap Genius was pretty clearly negotiating with Sony/ATV immediately after the first announcement on October 30, 2013, so by the time her Planet Money piece was released on May 9, 2014, that was a done deal.

6.  Follow the Money, orWhen Lyrics Get Posted Online, Who Gets Paid?”  Although Ms. Chace proposed the thesis question “who gets paid?” she did little to answer it.  If you listen to Ms. Chace, some of the unlicensed lyric websites make advertising money.

And you know, the thing about advertising on the Internet, right?

It’s magic.

Yes, folks, on the Internet, advertising magically appears and abracadabra–money appears!  In the pocket of the website!


The way it works is that the lyric website is an ad publisher.  The ad publisher maintains advertising inventory.  The ad publisher has one or more agreements with ad networks, like say Adsense.  The ad network (or ad exchange) has deals with advertisers who pay them money for “eyeballs”, also known as placement on the ad publisher’s inventory.  The ad network then takes the advertiser’s money and whacks about 30% of it for itself and pays the rest to the publisher under the contract the ad publisher has.  A contract which, of course, expressly prohibits profiting from piracy.

And here’s the twist:  If a lyric site gets a license and pays the songwriters, the site pays that royalty out of the site’s share of ad revenue.  Nothing changes for the ad network serving the ad.  The ad network makes the same cut of revenue before and after the site gets a license.  You know–“parasitic middlemen.”

It looks something like this Beyonce ad from the 2013 Superbowl (since Ms. Chace seems to be a fan):

lyrics007 adele pepsi

or this:


or this:

rumor has it elyrics

Kind of like if the Talmud had commercials.

So while Ms. Chace isn’t factually incorrect by saying that the illegal lyric site makes money by selling advertising, she’s clearly leaving out a big chunk of the “who gets paid” answer that she herself posed.  It’s highly doubtful that any of these lyric sites have their own ad sales team.  That’s why they pay a commission to the ad network who provides the advertising to the ad publisher’s inventory.

However–Ms. Chace only pursued Rap Genius, a site that does not sell advertising (because, presumably, it is venture backed and just hasn’t started commercializing their lyrics yet).  Ms. Chase mentioned lyric sites making money, but only in passing.  She never pursued that part of the story or even mentioned it in any detail.  Because I guess on Planet Money we don’t discuss such things in polite company.

Yes–someone is profiting from piracy besides the lyric sites.  She could have asked Lowery about this, too, because that’s also part of his study.  And the name “undesirable” was according to Lowery’s post suggested by a Google executive:

 The Lyric Website Undesirability Index And List

Our use of the term “undesirability index” is inspired by Google’s UK Policy Manager Theo Bertrand, who used the term during a recent debate in London. We use the term “undesirable “ because these sites do not appear to be licensed. We cannot absolutely conclude, from the outside looking in, that these sites do not have licenses. However, we could not locate the sites in the http://www.lyricsseal.com database and they do not appear to have otherwise been flagged as licensed based on our exhaustive web search. This leads us to conclude these sites are most likely unlicensed. It is entirely possible that some of these sites are licensed and we have not been able to locate those responsible for their licensing. If you feel your site has been mistakenly included in this list, please contact us at uga_undesirable_list<AT>outlook.com. We will confirm your licenses and will be glad to remove your site from the list if you in fact are licensed.

So it appears that Ms. Chace didn’t push quite far enough to determine who is really making money from these sites–including the indispensable ad network.  I wonder why she left that out.  This piece is riddled with interesting omissions.

But it’s true you know.  Most of these sites wouldn’t survive without some advertising income from people like Adsense to help them profit from piracy.

Yes, it’s true, Ms. Chace.

Just Google it.

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