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Google tunes up music searches

Enters legal minefield

Google revamped its web search engine on Thursday, aiming to make it easier for users to find music-related content such as lyrics and track listings. But it is pushing into an area that has been raising eyebrows among record labels.

The firm said it wants to make it easier for users to find information about artists, including album reviews, places to buy songs and cover art. When users search for popular US artists – or for some musicians in other countries – an image of the artist and a collection of links to related content appears above the usual search results.

The choices are somewhat limited today, but the company plans to add more classical music, worldwide artists and lesser-known performers over time, as well as links to additional music stores, it said.

It's similar to existing Google services for movies and weather, and is also not unlike Ask Jeeves' Smart Search page, which packages related links for musicians, movies and other topics. Google said its traffic analysis showed that "a huge number of users" perform music-related searches.

But the lyrics feature could potentially land Google in hot water with the record labels, which have been turning their attention to websites that offer unlicensed music scores and lyrics. Lauren Keiser, president of the MPA (the Music Publisher's Association), told the BBC earlier this week that the group plans to launch its first campaign against such sites early next year. Some labels have already begun.

Record label Warner/Chappel Music sent a cease-and-desist letter recently to pearLyrics, a service that helps users hunt down words for songs currently playing in their iTunes software. The developer of the service, Walter Ritter, shut down the site on 6 December rather than face an expensive court battle. "As a freeware developer I cannot afford to risk a lawsuit against such a big company," he wrote on his website.

However, there was no indication on Thursday that the music industry has Google in its sights, and the MPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Google's service is perhaps less controversial than that of pearLyrics, which also loaded the words it found into the lyrics field of the iTunes software.

In other Google news, the company launched an extension for the Firefox web browser on Wednesday called Blogger Web Comments, which shows web surfers what bloggers are saying about the website they are currently visiting.

Google also introduced a test version of an update to Google Safe Browsing for Firefox, which helps protect users against phishing websites, according to Google software engineer Glen Murphy in a posting on the firm's blog.

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