When Joris Kluivers (@kluivers on Twitter) set out to write his Lyrics app for iPhone, he never intended to personally take on Apple, Sony, and Gracenote. Kluivers, a student at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, was just trying to get his foot in the App Store door, not go toe-to-toe with three media behemoths. The story of how he ended up navigating through the corporate bulwarks to eventually successfully publish his latest release, Lyrics 2 (iTunes Link), with the blessings of all three companies, no less, makes quite the App Store saga.
The initial version of Lyrics was simple. Kluivers collaborated with Moop.me, a programming cooperative, to build his application. Published this past May, Lyrics was the first application on the App Store to allow users to find and display song lyrics. Several other similar applications followed in the weeks after.
Kluivers built the application around the LyricsWiki database. Featuring over 700,000 songs, the wiki provided easy access to a much-desired resource. It was exactly that access to a vast library of songs that caused the first of Kluiver's corporate challenges. Apple insisted on censoring his lyrics.
Read on to learn more about what happened...
As you're probably well aware, Apple carefully guards its App Store offerings. So long as Kluivers provided explicit lyrics, allowing access to songs by big-name artists like Eminem & 50 Cent [NSFW lyrics here], Apple would not approve the application. This, of course, dated back to the era before age-specific ratings were introduced to App Store.
So Kluivers complied, filtering out all explicit lyrics, and Apple gave Lyrics the green light. The application went live and users finally had access to the app. It wasn't long before those users started complaining. Many songs from artists who used non family friendly words weren't available-- just as Apple had requested.
The Easter Egg
To respond to his users, Kluivers built in an option to disable the filter, allowing full access to the wiki's lyrics data. Apple rejected the update. The profanity filter had to stay in place. After consideration, Kluivers tried to balance the user requests with Apple's demands. He moved the filter option into an Easter egg, allowing the application to disable the filter but hiding that ability from the App Store reviewers. He started letting unhappy customers know about the existence of the secret workaround.
Word about the Easter egg spread. Eventually one user mentioned it in their App Store review. Wired picked up the story, interviewing Jelle Prins of Moop.me, the cooperative that helped build the application. Prins told Wired that "it would be technically possible for Apple to discover a hidden Easter egg, but it would require intense inspection." There's a much easier way for Apple to discover Easter eggs, though: reading about them on Wired. Which they did.
Apple's developer wrangler called Kluivers, to ask him to pull his application from App Store until he could resubmit it without the filter workaround. The call came about 5 minutes too late. Kluivers had already pulled the app. But his move to do so had nothing to do with Apple reviewers or Easter eggs. It was because of Sony.
Sony is a rights holder for many of the lyrics that were being used in the Lyrics application. Unknown to Kluivers, the LyricsWiki site he used was infringing Sony's copyright. His application, in turn, was using unlicensed content. Kluivers' agreement with Apple held him liable for that infingement.
The notice instructed Kluivers had to pull his app within 3 days; in actuality, he pulled his app within minutes. Kluivers was in New York City at the time of receiving that take down notice. He replied to Sony by e-mail and... was invited to discuss matters in person with a Sony licensing manager. He agreed.
Kluivers recalls, "We met in the Sony headquarters in New York City and all they could start with was, 'You guys have a big problem.'" Things went better from there. "It turned out he was a nice guy, just protecting his assets." Corporations are very protective of their copyrights. When Kluivers asked how he could legally license the lyrics, the Sony manager put him in touch with Gracenote.
Gracenote is the company when it comes to licensing music lyrics. Search online for 'Gracenote Lyrics Licensing' and you'll find story after story about deals with major companies like Radio Disney and Yahoo. An undergraduate student, Kluivers was anything but a big company, and his meeting with Gracenote bore that out. He was in no position to come up with the minimum six figures or so that Gracenote would need to provide lyrics licensing. For the moment, the Lyrics app was singing the blues.
Bringing Lyrics Back To Life
Mobile music is, in fact, a big deal. That fact is becoming more and more apparent to big companies like Gracenote. So, after a few months when Gracenote got back in touch with him, Kluivers was shocked to learn that they'd be willing to work on a basis that even a small-time developer could afford.
"At first I thought there was no deal. But they called me and said they wanted to renegotiate and thought they could offer me a better deal I might be able to afford otherwise." Realizing they were missing out on App Store opportunities, Gracenote and Kluivers managed to hammer out a deal to change the pricing model to something more realistic for small businesses. Without going into details, Kluivers said, "I was able to afford it, even as a small developer."
Kluivers had a family friend, a corporate lawyer, look through the contract before signing. Within a few months of inking his name, he had rewritten the application from scratch, and submitted it to the App Store. Lyrics 2 [iTunes link] went live in the App Store this week, taking advantage of the new Gracenote licensing and offering unfiltered access to those lyrics using Apple's new age classification of 12+.
I had a chance to test Lyrics 2 this week. Although it is still early days, the application provides instant access to the currently playing song's lyrics. The Gracenote database is not perfect -- it failed spectacularly on my search for the lyrics to the Broadway Show "The Drowsy Chaperone" -- but performed very well for most popular songs.
The US$2.99 application still has room to grow. In fact, I dumped quite a lot of feature requests on Kluivers when I chatted with him in preparation for this story. But what it does give you is excellent: proper lyrics for songs, and the comfort of knowing the rights holders are receiving their due. Simply designed and to the point, Lyrics 2 is well worth trying out, especially for those of us who like to karaoke while listening to our iPods.
It has been a long journey from the ill-fated Lyrics with its censoring issues, Easter eggs, and unlicensed data to the fully licensed Lyrics 2. Hopefully, Kluivers' story will provide an inspiration for the other small developers out there.
When I asked him if he had any specific advice for other small developers, he told me, "When you're negotiating with a big party, show them you are good at what you do." He advises bringing along sales numbers and emphasizing good design. It worked for him.